Last month I wrote about the counterterrorism community’s penchant for over-counting the number of al Qaeda militants in the world, by taking too seriously the supposed “links” and “mergers” between al Qaeda and local insurgencies, particularly in Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, and Mali. (This game was perfected during the Iraq War.)

Two soldiers in Yemen, one standing, one squatting with a gun.

Soldiers in Yemen. Photo by Franco Pecchio.

This game is bound up with a pressing issue in the War on Terror: Is the U.S. creating more terrorists through heavy-handed counterterrorist measures? Answering this question brings us to a problem of counting.

Micha Zenka examines this issue in relation to drone attacks in Yemen.He notes that prior to the escalation of the drone campaign, the Administration’s counterterrorism tzar John Brennan argued that there were “several hundred” al Qaeda operatives in Yemen. Since then, this number has apparently grown to “more than a thousand,” according to Mr. Brennan. Judging by these statements, Zenka (somewhat ironically) argues that the drone strategy has clearly backfired.

There’s always a problem with government attempts to count al Qaeda. Simply put, no one outside of the “organization” (to whatever extent it even exists as an organization) knows how many members are out there, especially in Yemen. According to The Nation‘s Jeremy Scahill, this extends to those actually fighting militants in Yemen:

Moreover, just who exactly these militants were who overtook Zinjibar is a matter of some dispute. According to the Yemeni government, they were operatives of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group Washington has identified as the single most dangerous terrorist threat facing the United States. But the militants who took the city did not claim to be from AQAP. Instead, they announced themselves as a new group, Ansar al Sharia, or Supporters of Sharia. Senior Yemeni officials told me that Ansar al Sharia is simply a front for Al Qaeda. They point out that the first known public reference to the group was made a month before the attack on Zinjibar by AQAP’s top cleric, Adil al-Abab. “The name Ansar al Sharia is what we use to introduce ourselves in areas where we work to tell people about our work and goals, and that we are on the path of Allah,” he said, adding that the new name was intended to put the focus on the message of the group so as to avoid being bogged down with the baggage of the Al Qaeda brand. Whether Ansar al Sharia had more independent origins or it’s merely a product of AQAP’s crude rebranding campaign, as Abab claims, the group’s significance would soon extend well beyond Al Qaeda’s historically limited spheres of influence in Yemen while simultaneously popularizing some of AQAP’s core tenets…

[Yemeni Army General Mohammad al] Sumali tells me he cannot “confirm or deny” that Ansar al Sharia is actually AQAP. “What is important for me, as a soldier, is that they have taken up arms against us. Anyone who is attacking our institutions and military camps and killing our soldiers, we will fight them regardless of if they are Al Qaeda affiliates or Ansar al Sharia,” he says. “We don’t care what they call themselves. And I can’t confirm whether Ansar al Sharia is affiliated with Al Qaeda or if they are an independent group.”

American counterterrorist officials often try to have it both ways in the fight against al Qaeda. On the one hand, they play up the numbers of al Qaeda operatives they’re killing in order to sell us “progress” in the War on Terror. On the other hand, they need to continually expand this number of “terrorists” out there in order to justify the continued war on terror.

Thus the “philosopher’s stone” that is counterterrorist logic: local militants can magical be transformed into al Qaeda by the incantation of “experts.”

In a peculiar bit of backfiring, the selective release of the “bin Ladin letters” appears to belie the al Qaeda myth. Rather than being a jihadi C.O.B.R.A. Command, the letters indicate not only that the organization was pretty much bankrupt since 2002, but that even bin Ladin saw the “mergers” of local insurgencies into the al Qaeda fold as bullshit. (Documents leaked from Guantanamo also undermine the myth.)

Don’t expect it to go away any time soon, though. Not while there’s still money to be made from it.