Al Qaeda's Kidnap Strategy

Bruce Riedel on the terror cell’s dangerous new game—and why Obama has to keep the heat on.


Ayman al-Zawahiri’s al Qaeda is weaker than it has been in years, but it’s still deadly dangerous. His latest message shows both. He admitted the drones are killing his top lieutenants and demanded they halt. Kidnapping a Jewish American, Warren Weinstein, to trade for jihadist prisoners in America and a cessation of drone strikes is a copy cat of Hamas tactics that have worked so well with Israel.

Al Qaeda has kidnapped Westerners before—especially its North African franchise, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has sought to extort ransom money to fund terror plots. AQIM does so in part due to weakness; it is a way to compensate for its inability for the most part to stage bigger terror attacks. Zawahiri has long endorsed AQIM’s kidnap racket.

Zawahiri provided no proof that al Qaeda’s core in Pakistan, sometimes called Al Qaeda al Umm or Mother al Qaeda in Arabic, has possession of Weinstein. But there is no reason to doubt Zawahiri given his past support for the tactic. He cited Hamas' abduction of an Israeli soldier in Gaza, Gilad Shalit, who has been traded for a thousand Palestinian prisoners as an inspiration for the snatch in Pakistan. Jihad is global. Zawahiri probably calculates the citation of the Hamas example will both put more pressure on Washington to cut a deal and justify the crime to Muslims. It should not.

Al Qaeda al Umm is under intense pressure because President Obama has rightly made combating it a priority, committing resources and manpower to the task. The killing of Osama bin Laden and the drone strikes against top leaders have disrupted and dismantled the group. But it is not dead and could rapidly revive if the administration does not keep the pressure on.

Al Qaeda has a proven track record of going to ground when cornered and then striking back when attention shifts elsewhere. The group followed that strategy after the Afghan Taliban emirate was toppled in 2001. Its Iraqi cell has done it more than once when its leadership has been destroyed. Al Qaeda in Yemen has also come back from leadership decapitation. The movement is agile and adaptive. Its small numbers allow for innovation. Its obituary has been written too often.

Most of Zawahiri’s latest message is actually about the Arab awakening and the revolution in Egypt. He has been prolific this year in the propaganda war and most has been focused on his native Egypt. In fact, Zawahiri has been fixated on Egypt all year. He knows al Qaeda has been a marginal player at best in the Arab spring but also knows it has given his comrades throughout Arabia much more room to operate as the old Arab police states collapse from Libya to Yemen to Syria to the Sinai. Al Qaeda plays for the long term. It's not in a hurry.