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Research Report

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

Charlie Szrom
Chris Harnisch
Copyright Date: Mar. 1, 2011
Pages: 42
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 3-5)

    In the nine years since September 11, 2001, the United States has fought a war against the network of militant Islamist groups led by al Qaeda, hereafter referred to as the al Qaeda network (AQN). The enemy wears no uniform and belongs to no recognized state, creating instead its own system of quasi states, emirates, and affiliates. AQN operates from locations around the world, sometimes surreptitiously and sometimes with the support or acquiescence of foreign governments. It aims to conduct terror attacks on American interests, including on US territory, to advance a militant Islamist agenda. Confusion as to the nature...

  2. (pp. 6-8)

    It is worth examining the extent to which the AQN benefits from safe havens, which are the areas and territory in which AQN conducts training and maintains leadership with relatively little harassment, before assessing the network’s different operating environments. A substantial body of literature, including work by former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officials Paul Pillar and Marc Sageman, argues that particular safe havens are of little importance to al Qaeda and its affiliates. An analysis of this literature, however, reveals important flaws in reasoning and failures to account for some less commonly considered aspects of the AQN and how it...

  3. (pp. 9-11)

    Some analysts and observers have argued that the task of denying safe havens to al Qaeda is hopeless. They assert that the terror threat has simply moved from one country to another as US or other forces have threatened the AQN. Hence the “whack-a-mole” metaphor oft applied to such an argument: like the arcade game, the argument goes, the enemy simply pops up in a new location after being hammered in an old one.31

    In the mid-1990s, Osama bin Laden lived in and coordinated terrorist activities from Sudan. From there, he moved to Afghanistan, where he enjoyed his greatest freedom...

  4. (pp. 12-25)

    AQN groups operate in three kinds of environments: quasi states, limited safe havens, and distressed zones. (See map on page 25.) The distinctions between environment types are not rigid; rather, these types are three points along a spectrum ranging from groups that control the territory in which they operate entirely (directly or through allies) to groups on the run.43

    Each kind of environment demands a unique mix of policies and tools to defeat the al Qaeda threat. Evaluating a group’s operating environment gives policymakers a general guide, not a hard set of rules, for developing the set of policies that...

  5. (pp. 26-26)

    Beyond the three categories of al Qaeda–linked groups, there are individuals and groups of individuals linked to al Qaeda who have attempted attacks against selected US and Western targets. They may derive inspiration from al Qaeda and sometimes have operational connections to larger groups. Effective homeland security measures, law enforcement efforts, and intelligence—not to mention the alert eyes of responsible citizens, such as the vendor in Times Square who noticed smoke emerging from Shahzad’s car—are required in order to prevent such terrorists from carrying out attacks. Discussion of those policy measures, which are defensive in nature, goes...

  6. (pp. 27-28)

    The al Qaeda network has attacked US territory three times in the last year and a half: the Christmas Day attack, the Times Square attack, and the package plot of October 2010. Al Qaeda and its affiliates prepared these attacks from operating environments in two countries, and AQN territory stretches across at least two continents. Reducing the risk of further attacks on US territory will require a concerted strategy to roll back the entire AQN. Homeland security and law enforcement are critical to keeping US citizens safe, but they should be measures of last resort. US homeland security infrastructure cannot...