National Security
3:57 pm
Fri October 26, 2012

As Jihadists Spread, Connecting The Dots Proves Hard

More than a year after popular protests rocked the Arab world, U.S. intelligence officials are struggling to understand the myriad of Islamist groups that have filled the vacuum.

Those groups run the gamut from moderate believers who are willing to give the political process a try to violent extremists. The difficulty is figuring out which is which.

The day after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House intelligence committee, told CNN, "There are still some fuzzy details that I think we'll have resolved in the next few days to have a for sure and for certain. But clearly it has all the hallmarks of an al-Qaida-style event."

In the weeks since, it has become clear that multiple groups were involved — and that highlights a significant challenge for counterterrorism officials: Not all Islamist groups are al-Qaida.

Al-Qaida Links: Only Part Of The Equation

Over the past decade, policymakers focused on what jihadists had in common with Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization. And that approach seemed to bear fruit, says Christopher Swift, a professor of law at the University of Virginia. "In the process ... we've discovered a lot of linkages and relationships," he says.

But while the relationships between groups are important, he says, their differences are, too.

"Those distinctions can be very important in helping us understand who's operating where, what their objectives are, whether they buy into the al-Qaida ideology and whether they have any kind of meaningful operational relationship with al-Qaida," Swift says.

That last notion, of meaningful operational relationships, is what really concerns U.S. officials. In Mali, local groups have ties to al-Qaida, and the group's North African affiliate is now helping run two-thirds of the country.

But J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, warns that Mali is a place where the U.S. should avoid assuming that all Islamists are in step with al-Qaida.

"Because the key to solving the crisis in Mali is nuance," Pham says. "Dividing ... the various groups and distinguishing those you can work with, those that have to be opposed and those in-between."

There are important distinctions to be made among Islamists elsewhere as well. In Syria, for example, a number of Islamist groups are fighting the Assad regime. Because they have a common enemy, the patchwork of rebels and Islamists that make up the Free Syrian Army are willing to accommodate al-Qaida. But ideologically and politically, the groups have huge differences.

The University of Virginia's Christopher Swift says those tensions "are important because they provide an opportunity for engagement — to understand what these groups want, and which ... can be broken off from these temporary coalitions with al-Qaida."

In other words, the counterterrorism version of "divide and conquer."

In Libya Attack, Complex Ties

As for the Benghazi attack, the group thought to be largely responsible is Ansar al-Sharia, a local Islamist militia that is not an arm of al-Qaida, though some of its members share the group's ideology.

This week, Tunisia announced that it had made the first arrest in connection with the attack: a 28-year-old Tunisian man — who's not a member of al-Qaida, either.

This all underscores how important, and how complex, it has become for counterterrorism officials grappling with the changing nature of extremism in North Africa and the Middle East to understand the differences among Islamist groups.

The lesson that's emerging: If there's a terrorist attack, you can't just assume it's al-Qaida.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're going to broaden our focus now to several other nations where recent turmoil has not only brought a change in leadership, it's created a leadership vacuum. And U.S. intelligence officials are struggling to understand the many Islamist groups now trying to fill that vacuum. In Mali, local groups have ties to al-Qaida and its North African affiliate is helping run two-thirds of the country. In Libya, the links are harder to follow, which is why questions remain about who attacked the Benghazi consulate. As NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, not all militant Islamists are al-Qaida.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: In the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi attack, many people were quick to place blame. Here's what the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Mike Rogers, told CNN the day after the attack.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE ROGERS: There are still some fuzzy details that, I think, we'll have resolved within the next few days to have a for sure and for certain. But clearly it has all the hallmark of a al-Qaida-style event.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In the weeks since, it has become clear that lots of groups were involved, and that highlights a challenge counterterrorism officials now face: not all Islamist groups are al-Qaida. Over the past decade, policymakers have focused on what jihadists had in common with bin Laden's terrorist organization. And that approach seemed to work.

CHRISTOPHER SWIFT: And in the process of doing that, we've discovered a lot of linkages and relationships.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Christopher Swift, a professor at the University of Virginia law school. He says that while the relationships between groups is important, their differences are too.

SWIFT: Those distinctions can be very important in helping us understand who's operating where, what their objectives are, whether they buy into the al-Qaida ideology and whether they have any kind of meaningful operational relationship with al-Qaida.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Meaningful operational relationships, that's what really concerns U.S. officials - one example, Mali in North Africa. J. Peter Pham is the director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, and he says that Mali is a place where the U.S. should avoid assuming all Islamists are in step with al-Qaida.

J. PETER PHAM: Because the key to solving the crisis in Mali is nuance and dividing, if you will, the various groups among themselves and distinguishing those you can work with, those that have to be opposed and those in between.

TEMPLE-RASTON: There are important distinctions to be made among the Islamists elsewhere as well, like Syria, where a number of Islamist groups are fighting the Assad regime. Because they have a common enemy, the patchwork of rebels and Islamists that make up the Free Syrian Army are willing to accommodate al-Qaida. But ideologically and politically, they have huge differences.

SWIFT: And these tensions are important.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Again, University of Virginia law school's Christopher Swift.

SWIFT: They're important because they provide an opportunity for engagement, to sort of understand what these groups want and which groups can be broken off from these temporary coalitions with al-Qaida.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The counterterrorism version of divide and conquer. Finally, back to Libya, the group thought to be largely responsible for the Benghazi attack is called Ansar al-Sharia. It's a local Islamist militia, not an arm of al-Qaida, though some of its members share the group's ideology. This week, Tunisia announced that it made the first arrest in connection with the Benghazi attack. It's a 28-year-old Tunisian man, and he isn't a member of al-Qaida either. Understanding the differences among Islamist groups complicates the job for counterterrorism officials as they grapple with the changing nature of extremism in North Africa and the Middle East. The lesson that's emerging: if there's a terrorist attack, you can't assume it's al-Qaida. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.