As an analyst in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, I spent four years as one of the agency’s leading experts on al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq. Thus, the debate on Just Security and elsewhere regarding how we characterize the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as “al-Qaeda-linked” provides me with a sad sense of déjà vu. I know many national security practitioners who cut their teeth on the Iraq conflict have been feeling the same in recent weeks. I am writing here to provide some historical context to this discussion that may help understand any “al-Qaeda” threat in Iraq today. While these comments might inform a discussion about executive branch legal authorities, they primarily pertain to the broader policy considerations regarding ISIS.
The question of whether al-Qaeda was even in Iraq early in the conflict was already a hotly contested issue before I joined the Counterterrorism Center in late 2005. Was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the man whose group claimed credit for so many attacks on U.S. forces, a member of al-Qaeda? Had he ever sworn bayat (allegiance) to bin Laden? Bush’s national security team pressed the intelligence community for answers. This reflected a search within the Administration for easy explanations for why things were not working out swimmingly in 2004. What was happening in Iraq, some thought, was not a budding insurgency but rather a small number of al-Qaeda members mucking with our grand designs. Even as Zarqawi was thinking strategically about how to advance his goals, U.S. policymakers were distracted from our goals by a discussion about Zarqawi’s affiliation.
This narrow debate was put to rest when Zarqawi merged his organization with al-Qaeda in late 2004, creating what would become known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). But at that point the focus shifted to questions regarding whether AQI was truly al-Qaeda. Zarqawi’s group was a new model of an al-Qaeda “node” that had not been seen before and that challenged notions of what it meant to be al-Qaeda-affiliated. As compared to previous al-Qaeda “networks,” such as the one that existed in the Arabian Peninsula in 2003, AQI was always relatively independent of al-Qaeda central leadership. The shift in terminology (from network to node and/or affiliate) reflected the reality that bin Laden and Zawahiri exercised virtually no command and control and were limited to providing strategic guidance to Zarqawi and his successors. This guidance was often ignored. Indeed, AQI in late 2006 established the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which has since been renamed ISIS and which was originally intended to form the basis of al-Qaeda’s new caliphate in the Middle East, without the buy-in from al-Qaeda leadership.
ISI was initially a shell for AQI, but its establishment delineated what had been a gradual shift away from bin Laden’s approach to jihad. ISI was an organization far more dedicated to local Iraqi interests. This, combined with counterterrorism successes against those foreign members of AQI with the closest link to Zarqawi’s original group, further weakened already tenuous ties to al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan, spurring continued discussion within the national security community about whether al-Qaeda was in Iraq at all. However, it was also clear by 2007 that no organization was doing more to advance al-Qaeda’s global interests than ISI and that, even while the vast majority of its fighters were focused locally, there remained a small cadre of ISI’s most extreme members who were dedicated to conducting attacks U.S. and western targets outside of Iraq.
We are asking the same question about what it means to be “al-Qaeda-linked” as was asked about Zarqawi’s original network, about AQI after the merger with al-Qaeda, and about the ISI after it was established. For me, there are two key lessons that emerge from those past discussions. First, command and control should not be especially important to understanding the threat posed by an al-Qaeda-somehow-linked group, whether in Iraq or elsewhere. With little or no input from leaders in Pakistan, forerunners of the current ISIS were able to advance al-Qaeda’s goals and help it recover after being decimated by the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks.
Second, what we call the al-Qaeda-somehow-linked group in Iraq shouldn’t matter all that much in this discussion. The name does serves as an important signal to the American public about the nature of the threat posed by the Iraq-based group. I believe this is why “al-Qaeda in Iraq” came into greater use over Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (QJBR), which was the label often used by the national security community early after the 2004 merger to describe al-Qaeda’s Iraq-based affiliate. Various levels of the Bush Administration slowly shifted to AQI instead of QJBR because AQI more clearly communicated the nature of the threat we faced in Iraq. But whether or not one agreed with the new label then depended on whether one agreed with the characterization of the threat to U.S. interests. The name itself was secondary to a deeper analysis of the group’s goals and its importance to al-Qaeda.
Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, discussions about the name and command and control of the al-Qaeda-somehow-linked group in Iraq have consistently distracted policymakers from more important questions about the nature of the threat posed by that group and about the appropriate means to confront that threat. It seems we are about to repeat that mistake.
I realize that concerns about what exactly it means to be al-Qaeda have implications for executive branch authorities to take action against ISIS, and I do not mean to suggest that those concerns are unimportant. I would argue, however, that the two easiest indicators—a clear, direct affiliation with al-Qaeda and decision-making authority of al-Qaeda leadership—are outdated as a matter of policy. We should not allow those factors to have too much influence over our understanding of ISIS. I defer to the law scholars here regarding whether those factors nonetheless are and should be relevant to the legal analysis, although as a purely practical matter I think it would be a mistake to hinge such analysis on the presence or absence of command and control.
I left the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center in 2010 and cannot today answer those other important questions about the threat posed by ISIS. I suspect that its links to al-Qaeda are even more tenuous than they were in the early history of AQI and that the organization’s commitment to directly attacking U.S. interests is further diminished. But it is probably also the case that the organization has hundreds, if not thousands, of fighters who have at one time called themselves “al-Qaeda.” It is these fighters, more than any other linked, inspired, affiliated, or associated group, who may determine whether al-Qaeda endures as a major threat to the United States. For this reason, it is important to ensure the Administration has sufficient authority to take the actions it deems necessary against this particular al-Qaeda-somehow-linked group in Iraq.