Here’s the problem: According to recently declassified testimony of Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before the House Armed Services Committee in October, the U.S. military regards itself as legally barred from going after the perpetrators of the Benghazi attacks (and, presumably, others who attack Americans) unless they are affiliated with al-Qaeda. The Obama administration’s parsing of words to deny al-Qaeda’s direct involvement effectively precludes a military response in these situations.
But the United States can neither disrupt nor defend itself from an enemy it cannot define. Nor are we safer because of arbitrary definitions. The question demands an answer: What is al-Qaeda?
Al-Qaeda’s leadership regulates the use of its name and resources; it has formally and publicly recognized affiliates in Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Syria and West Africa. In each of these cases, the regional leadership pledged loyalty to the al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who accepted their oaths. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki may have been right when she said last month that “they don’t give out T-shirts or membership cards,” but any sensible definition of group membership must surely recognize the explicit and public exchanges of oaths of loyalty and command between Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri, on the one hand, and the leaders of overt franchises on the other.
Many experts disagree about the extent to which locally oriented militants are officially part of al-Qaeda. The White House has focused on terrorists currently targeting the United States, which form a small subset of the overall al-Qaeda movement. In the course of the debate over Benghazi, that focus has narrowed further to the question of whether “al-Qaeda core” ordered a specific attack.
There is even disagreement over the definition of “core” al-Qaeda. Most administration officials suggest that it is the small group keeping company with Zawahiri in Pakistan. Others define it as veteran members of the al-Qaeda network, active before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But this core has long been dispersed, with only a small part still in Pakistan. Some members now lead regional franchises: Nasir al-Wuhayshi , bin Laden’s former secretary, is both emir of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda’s general manager.
In reality, al-Qaeda’s goals are furthered by the so-called core, affiliates and local groups that enjoy no formal relationships with the Zawahiri contingent. The Jamal Network in Egypt, al-Mulathamun in the Sahel and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have a direct but informal relationship with al-Qaeda. The TTP poses a particular definitional problem because it has neither sought nor received formal membership in al-Qaeda, yet it conducted the attempted Times Square bombing in May 2010.