March 01, 2011

Al Qaeda's Operating Environments: A New Approach to the War on Terror

Summary and Key Findings

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The environment in which an al Qaeda affiliate operates is one of the most important factors in assessing the threat it poses to US interests. Defeating the militant Islamist network led by al Qaeda requires a nuanced strategy that supports the appropriate combination and prioritization of policies and approaches for each environment in which an al Qaeda affiliate or franchise operates. The US government has not articulated such a strategy, a deficiency that acquires urgency because terrorist groups based abroad have been linked to three attacks against the American homeland in the past year. Building a strategy to oppose the al Qaeda network requires detailed understanding of its different operating environments, the ties between its various parts, and how territory affects its vitality. A comprehensive strategy should deny the al Qaeda network access to operating environments from which it can pose a major threat to the United States and the West.

Key Findings
  • The US government should reassess its policies and strategy in the war on terror. Terrorist groups abroad have lent support to attempted attacks on the American homeland three times in the past year and a half. The Obama administration has not yet concluded a significant, systematic review of its approach to this threat.
  • Territory matters to al Qaeda, notwithstanding the arguments of some counterterrorism experts to the contrary. Understanding the importance of territory to the al Qaeda network and the precise nature of its various operating environments could lay the foundation for a detailed strategy, help educate Americans about the war on terror, and inform a reexamination of US policy in the war on terror.
  • The environment in which an al Qaeda affiliate operates determines the group's strength, capabilities, and character more than any other single factor. Denying al Qaeda and its affiliates access to environments propitious to their operations can significantly reduce the terror threat to the United States.
  • The United States need not invade and occupy every al Qaeda operating zone. Instead, the only likely path to success depends on a nuanced but systematic approach to this challenge that makes appropriate use of all military, diplomatic, foreign assistance, foreign internal defense, and other tools.
  • The environments in which the al Qaeda network operates can be divided into three general categories: quasi state, limited safe haven, and distressed zone. Groups operating out of Islamist quasi states tend to be the most dangerous over the long term because the security such groups enjoy facilitates efforts to protect their organizations, plan, train, and produce more effective attacks over time. Groups in any of the environments, however, are capable of launching individual successful mass-casualty attacks.
  • Territory suitable for the establishment of al Qaeda sanctuaries and for the future expansion of the al Qaeda network is much more limited than generally recognized in public debates. Al Qaeda has very specific requirements for safe havens and sanctuaries, and the network already has a strong presence in most of the areas that meet those requirements. Thus, should the network be defeated in one sanctuary, it will have difficulty moving rapidly to a new area in which it is not already established.
  • The United States and its allies can defeat the al Qaeda network. Doing so will take years of work and many resources. But if policymakers and the American public understand the central importance of territory to al Qaeda, successfully develop policies and strategies that fit each particular enemy operating environment, avoid the errors in past efforts to construct strategy, and maintain pressure over time to roll back the al Qaeda network's presence worldwide, success in this effort is attainable.

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