That's why you should read her new piece in Foreign Affairs, entitled "How al Qaeda Works: What the Organization's Subsidiaries Say About Its Strength." (If you're not a subscriber, it's reprinted in full on Leah's excellent and sadly underpopulated blog.) Here's the gist:
Despite nearly a decade of war, al Qaeda is stronger today than when it carried out the 9/11 attacks. Before 2001, its history was checkered with mostly failed attempts to fulfill its most enduring goal: the unification of other militant Islamist groups under its strategic leadership. However, since fleeing Afghanistan to Pakistan’s tribal areas in late 2001, al Qaeda has founded a regional branch in the Arabian Peninsula and acquired franchises in Iraq and the Maghreb. Today, it has more members, greater geographic reach, and a level of ideological sophistication and influence it lacked ten years ago.
Still, most accounts of the progress of the war against al Qaeda contend that the organization is on the decline, pointing to its degraded capacity to carry out terrorist operations and depleted senior leadership as evidence that the group is at its weakest since 9/11. But such accounts treat the central al Qaeda organization separately from its subsidiaries and overlook its success in expanding its power and influence through them. These groups should not be ignored. All have attacked Western interests in their regions of operation. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has also long targeted the United States, but its efforts have moved beyond the execution stage only in the last two years, most recently with the foiled plot to bomb cargo planes in October 2010. And although al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has not yet attacked outside its region, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was reportedly involved in the June 2007 London and Glasgow bomb plots.
It is time for an updated conception of al Qaeda’s organization that takes into account its relationships with its subsidiaries. A broader conceptual framework will allow for a greater understanding of how and to what degree it exercises command and control over its expanded structure, the goals driving its expansion strategy, and its tactics.American politicians, analysts, and commentators blithely assert a number of things about the "terrorist threat" to justify their preferred policy course, and it can be tough to know what's true. Our policy toward central and south Asia (and really, our national security "strategy" writ large, such as we can be said to have one) is defined almost wholly by just such a specious assertion: that the continuation of the war in Afghanistan will contribute to al-Qaeda's weakening and eventual destruction.
There are, of course, competing interpretations and analyses of al-Qaeda's branch/franchise structure (at least so far as I'm aware). But the one Leah offers here is compelling, and it should have a dramatic impact on the way we approach the "struggle against violent extremism." This is must-read stuff.