Countering Al Qaeda’s ability to launch attacks against Europe and the United States from ungoverned tribal areas is the primary aim of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and aid to Pakistan.  However, Al Qaeda’s aim may be shifting.


In the June issue of the CTC Sentinel, a monthly online journal produced by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Don Rassler argues that Al Qaeda’s strategy has changed from plotting major attacks against Western targets to a more nuanced, “behind-the-scenes” effort to destabilize Pakistan.  Rassler writes:

“Western counterterrorism analysts assessing al-Qa`ida’s operations in Pakistan typically focus their attention on al-Qa`ida’s “external” activities, primarily its support for terrorist attacks and plots in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the United States. Although this perspective is important, the focus on al-Qa`ida’s direct role in the conduct of violence has obscured the critical, but largely behind-the-scenes, role that al-Qa`ida is playing to foster militancy in Pakistan. The Pakistan example is important not only because it threatens a critical U.S. ally, but because it illustrates the dangerous role that al-Qa`ida can play even when it is not primarily responsible for violent operations.”

According to Rassler, there are three main characteristics of Al Qaeda’s Pakistan strategy:

“A review of al-Qa`ida’s statements pertaining to Pakistan, militant activity in the country, and the alliances al-Qa`ida has fostered among Pakistani factions reveals that the group is acting to shape Pakistan’s militant environment and foster jihad against the Pakistani government, even while taking a secondary role in the organization and operationalization of violence. Al-Qa`ida accomplishes this in three primary ways: 1) by providing religious “justification” and rallying support for anti-government militancy; 2) acting as a force multiplier for violent activities by providing specific expertise; and 3) serving as a mediator and coalition builder for militant groups within Pakistan to further al-Qa`ida’s aims.”

In its new role, Al Qaeda brings together politically or ideologically divergent Islamist groups and provides expertise and training to such groups without exerting overt control. In Pakistan, asserts Rassler, Al Qaeda sees an opportunity not only to harm U.S. interests and stifle progress in neighboring Afghanistan, but also to combine the struggle against the so-called “near enemies,” which include Western-allied governments like Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the “far enemies” of the U.S. and its European allies.

Thus, attacking a Pakistani army battalion or executing an Afghan government minister would be fighting against both “apostate” Muslim governments and global U.S. hegemony:

“Al-Qa`ida’s conflation of the near and far enemy target sets is an attempt to re-frame the jihad in Pakistan as one that is both local and global. In doing so, al-Qa`ida is trying to obviate the differences among Pakistani militant groups that vary widely in their commitment to global jihad, the war in Afghanistan, sectarianism, and the fight against India in Kashmir. This reflects an important ideational shift within al-Qa`ida that has significant implications for its strategic goals and tactical objectives.”


“Al-Qa`ida does not need to conduct bombings itself in order to be dangerous; in fact, al-Qa`ida is more likely to produce successful revolutionary movements when it defers to local groups to do the bulk of the fighting.”


“The U.S. and international community’s focus on al-Qa`ida’s “external” posture must therefore be accompanied by an increased focus on the group’s “internal” posture and the implications of al-Qa`ida’s willingness to take a supporting rather than primary role in the anti-government insurgency in Pakistan. Such techniques are more subtle and sophisticated than the activities generally expected of al-Qa`ida, and thus the U.S. policy response will have to be similarly nuanced.”

That Al Qaeda has apparently adapted itself in the face of U.S. bombing campaigns and setbacks in its Iraqi “operations” may not be surprising, but it does illustrate the ease with which non-state actors such as Al Qaeda can change and respond to an evolving environment. This capacity presents challenges to the U.S. government as it implements counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations designed to stifle support for radical Islamic militancy in the tribal areas. Al Qaeda must be prevented from galvanizing the Islamic world in the same way that their progenitors helped rally support for the anti-Soviet jihad during the 1980s.

So, how can the U.S. adapt its policies to combat an evolving Al Qaeda? And if the changes argued by Rassler are due to effective missile strikes or other counterterrorism policies, should these methods be curtailed? The answer to this question, I believe, is no, but the gathering consensus around a strategy that measures success by the amount of people protected from violence should begin to dampen support for radicalism and provide some hope for an embattled people in a brutal land.

Brendan Boundy is an intern with the New Atlanticist. He is pursuing a master’s degree from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.