We have seen this story of bloodthirsty extremist violence before. In Somalia, in Yemen, in Iraq, and now in Algeria. A militant group moves into an ungoverned space where government lacks will or capability, where the group purports to represent the will of the people by instituting some strict version of Islam and imposing this vision with abhorrent ruthlessness. More broadly, in more than a decade of this global counterterror campaign, we have seen this battlefield shift from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Europe, and now Africa’s Sahel.
The lessons we have learned, from a war that has endured far longer than both World Wars combined, should lead us to view the incident at the Amenas gas facility not as an indicator of the rise of a regional—or even international—threat, but instead as a sign of how far the jihadist movement has fallen since its apex 12 years ago. From the core al Qaeda group in the tribal areas of Pakistan to its affiliates in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, we have witnessed the rise and decline of many groups that quickly gained international attention with dramatic attacks and then, almost as quickly, waned in significance. In their rise, these groups sowed the seeds of their destruction, a lesson we might consider before we crown this Algeria-based manifestation of al Qaeda as our newest adversary.
First, al Qaeda’s operations, and its message, have eroded as a result of terror operations that have little link to any well-articulated global strategy or to any clear al Qaeda goal beyond retribution. In the case of this extremist attack on a remote gas facility, the attackers claim retaliation for intervention into today’s hotbed of extremist activity in northern Mali, where a combination of Western and African troops and support are converging to repulse the spread of radicals who have moved into poorly defended towns. The real story, though, is that we are witnessing another al Qaeda group without broad popular support murdering innocents—and damaging economic infrastructure that contributes to a local economy—without either uniform local backing or a plan for how they can pivot from this act to a broader revolution.
Second, key leaders in both al Qaeda’s original core group and its far-flung affiliates crave the spotlight that these kinds of spectacular operations bring. More publicity means a broader reach for financial requests, recruiting, and, more generally, spreading a message that these groups, like Osama bin Laden’s 12 years ago, are part of a vanguard that can stand up to the West. But more notice, particularly when it comes as a result of the murder of citizens from countries with broad international reach, also carries a risk: from Jemaah Islamiyya in Indonesia to the foreign-focused fringes of Al-Shabab in Somalia and al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, leaders from these groups, once they enter a bigger stage, have remarkably short life spans.
We will see many after-the-action reports of this most recent atrocity, along with questions about whether the audacity of the hostage standoff represents a turning point for extremists in the region. It may, but more likely a turning point that results in its long-term demise, not its rise. Time and again, al Qaeda’s failure to link the killings of civilians with a clear explanation of why these killings are appropriate have crippled the group’s grip on popular opinion: polling across the Islamic world shows no love for America, but the same polls show an indisputable disaffection with al Qaeda’s willingness to sacrifice innocents. In Mali and Nigeria, the two areas in the region most infected with the al Qaeda ideology, disregard for human life likely will turn cowed local populations against extremists, as we have learned. The result: these extremists will struggle, over the long term, to operate where local backing dissipates, particularly if the local population determines that helping security forces is a safer bet than siding with brutal ideologues.
Individual extremist leaders blinded by their desire to expand the reach of their groups—such as Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the architect behind the group that conducted the Algeria operation—consistently overreach. From bin Laden and his 9/11 coordinators to Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen and the senior jihadists in Somalia, they all die, victims of their own overreach when Western intelligence, sometimes working with local firepower, finally shifts the remarkable intelligence and military capabilities against them.
Serving at the CIA and the FBI, I witnessed this. There are dozens of targets that crop up around the world every day. With this array of targets, you can’t turn on a dime: building an intelligence picture of an adversary in no man’s land halfway around the world takes time and patience—along with a commitment to build partnerships with local security services that are critical when we are committed to “light footprint” operations in which we feed intelligence to others who conduct the operations. But when this huge intelligence apparatus moves, backed by lethal firepower that includes armed drones, an adversary of relatively small, isolated militant cells lacks the ability to protect itself. Meanwhile, the militants’ messaging mistake—the brutality that alienates local populations and potential recruits—limits their ability to build massive bases of support that would give them the pool of local backing, recruits, and leadership to withstand sustained decimation of their ranks.
We should also avoid confusing this Algerian spike in activity with some resurgence of a global extremist threat. British Prime Minister David Cameron is right to draw attention to the growing threat and to the need for a broad commitment to fight reemerging violent Islamists. But in 2001, we faced a globally oriented group who were entrenched around the world, as we witnessed during the far-flung attacks of the 2000s decade. In Algeria, we see the inverse, a regional group with global ambitions that likely never will be realized, not least because they have now shown the strategic stupidity of attracting the attention of foes from among security services who will hunt them mercilessly. Do we talk about al-Awlaki now? Zarqawi in Iraq? The Somali jihadis, with their now sidelined and discredited spokesman from America? The Egyptian groups of the 1990s? The growing threat of Indonesian militants? No—they all overreached, their hubris more than sufficient to bring about their demise. So it will be with the new cliques of murderers. Real revolutionaries—in Vietnam, the Philippines, or Latin America—realize at some point that violence cannot come at the expense of draining the swamp of local support. These faux al Qaeda revolutionaries have spent a quarter century showing that they can’t figure out this basic proposition.
These attacks start from a low base that the regionally based militants are trying to build on, to take the baton from the fading al Qaeda core and gain the glory of becoming the next bin Ladenist magnet. The attacks last week represent wavelets that show the resonance of the al Qaeda ideological bow wave a decade ago, but the leadership of these wavelets lacks the global name recognition, or the breadth and depth of leadership, that will allow men like Belmokhtar and his ideological peers to capitalize on dead bodies and a few headlines.
We did not know how these types of al Qaedist fringes would play out 10 years ago, when I remember sitting at the nightly threat briefings at CIA, wondering, after yet another attack in yet another locale, whether we might be losing. Today, though, history has taught us the lessons of how these groups fail: trailing brightly from the fading al Qaeda comet, they win their 15 minutes of fame. Or maybe 15 months. Tomorrow, though, their real challenge begins. They have been, and will be, the architects of their own demise.