What exactly is al-Qaeda?
Is it a group of committed jihadists previously led by Osama bin Laden? Or is it a “brand?”
Is the enemy just the so-called “core” al-Qaeda, or is it now an amorphous conglomerate of affiliates, franchisees and enthusiasts?
If “core al-Qaeda” is, as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper just said in his most recent congressional testimony, those “remnants” of the original ideological core still in Pakistan and Afghanistan, by what criteria are other groups not self-identifying as “al-Qaeda” then deemed as “designated al-Qaeda”
Considering the President’s State of the Union anti-terrorist to-do list of Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and Mali, is al-Qaeda really “on the path to defeat?” Is it “resurgent?” Or is the to-do list just a broad wish list of militants and insurgents not really associated with “core” al-Qaeda?
And now that Osama bin Laden is long-since dead, is Ayman al-Zawahri truly running a massive network of evildoers? Or is he, as CNN’s Peter Bergen wrote in 2012, “a black hole of charisma” who will never fill the void left behind by Osama bin Laden?
Questions are manifold. Answers are, as ever, scarce.
The confusion about al-Qaeda’s role in Syria and Iraq—supposed fronts in the nearly thirteen year war on those responsible for 9/11—illustrates the extent to which an ill-defined al-Qaeda is the crucial element sustaining the War On Terror.
It has been both officially asserted and widely accepted that al-Qaeda is actively fighting to take control of both Syria and Iraq. Both print and television news media used alarming headlines to emphasize the persistent specter of al-Qaeda in Syria and to bemoan its takeover of two Iraqi cities—Fallujah and Ramadi.
But then came a poser. Zawahri seems to have distanced himself and his “core” version of al-Qaeda from the proceedings in Syria. The way two major news agencies handled the story tells as much about the problem of defining al-Qaeda as it does about al-Qaeda itself.
Here’s how the Associated Press headlined the story: “Al-Qaida breaks with Syria group in mounting feud.”
However, that was not the first version to appear on AP’s website. The original headline from AP was: “Al-Qaida breaks ties with group in Syria.” And that was the headline run by Yahoo! News, US News & World Report, the San Francisco Chronicle and a variety of outlets that use AP’s wire service. FOX News altered AP’s headline a bit: “Al Qaeda announces it’s breaking ties with militant group fighting in Syria,” and the Times of Israel followed suit by also adding a qualifier: “Al-Qaeda breaks ties with rebel group in Syria.”
This isn’t a simple difference in style. In this second headline, al-Qaeda “denies” a connection to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—a group consistently identified as “al-Qaeda” by the U.S. news media. Other European outlets used both “denies” and “ISIL” in their versions, and Haaretz used the Reuters wire story and an even more precise headline: “Al-Qaida denies link to Syrian militant group ISIL.”
“Syrian militant group” is a far cry from al-Qaeda, which is how the ISIL is consistently referred to by the US government, members of Congress and much of the U.S. media. Make no mistake, it matters how these groups are characterized. Although decision-makers like to raise the all-inclusive threat posed by “The Terrorists,” there is a black and white distinction at the very center of who’s who in the wide world of terrorism.