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Diplomacy in Action

Al-Qa'ida and Its Affiliates

Daniel Benjamin
Coordinator, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism
New America Foundation Conference
Washington, DC
April 27, 2011


As prepared for delivery

I’d like to thank my Steve Coll, Peter Bergen, and the New America Foundation for inviting me to participate in this conference. I’m delighted to be back among my think tank colleagues and to see so many familiar faces. As someone who spent the last decade and a half either inside the think tank world or in government, consuming it’s products, I have the greatest admiration for what you have achieved here in such a short period of time at the New America Foundation, one of the focal points of the debate on so many key issues, include terrorism issues before us today. You’ve put together a remarkable lineup today and I’m honored to be part of it.

From its earliest days, al-Qa’ida (AQ) has cultivated a range of relationships with affiliated groups in disparate places. These have been dynamic, changing ties. I believe that both Steve Coll and I mentioned in books we wrote long ago that AQ was at first likened inside the Clinton administration to the Ford Foundation of terrorism. After the East Africa Embassy bombings and, of course, 9/11, that picture changed, and no one was using such relatively benign analogies. The ties to affiliates have evolved with varying degrees of command and control or influence between the core leadership and the affiliates. This conference is timely because, as most of us recognize, the allies, affiliates, and adherents are playing overall a more menacing role today than they have in quite a while. That development has been in train for some time, but we are in a decidedly different place today from where we were, say two years ago. Moreover, what makes the issue of the affiliates particularly urgent now is that the context in which they operate has changed so dramatically in a matter of a few months.

Let me begin by outlining the global threat environment and suggesting what the trend lines are. Then I’ll talk about what we are doing to deal with this changing situation.

I. The AQ Threat

Let’s start at the heart of the matter: the AQ core leadership in Pakistan, the group responsible for 9/11. As you know, U.S. and Pakistan counterterrorism cooperation has put considerable pressure on AQ, and Pakistani military operations aimed at eliminating militant strongholds in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have degraded much of the group’s abilities. As a result, the AQ core has had significant leadership losses and is finding it more difficult to raise money, train recruits, and plan attacks outside of the region. But although AQ core is clearly weaker, it retains the capability to conduct regional and transnational attacks. In addition, AQ has forged closer ties with some of the other militant groups in the region – for example Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Haqqani Network – and this has provided the group with additional capabilities to draw on. In the last year we’ve seen two high-profile law-enforcement cases, individuals who appear to have been trained and handled from the FATA, operating within U.S. borders. Najibullah Zazi, a U.S. lawful permanent resident, obtained terrorist training in Pakistan and pleaded guilty to charges that he was planning to set off several bombs in the United States. We also saw Faisal Shahzad, who was linked to the Pakistani Taliban, attempt to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. The significance of these cases cannot be ignored.

Although I would not characterize it as an affiliate, though its ideology bears many similarities, the continued menace of Lashkar e-Tayyiba (LeT), a large, well-armed, technically capable terrorist group, adds to the overall high threat level in South Asia.

While the AQ core has weakened operationally, the affiliates have become stronger. Consequently, the broader AQ threat has become more geographically and ethnically diversified.

At the top of the affiliates list is al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It continues to demonstrate its growing ambitions and strong desire to carry out attacks outside of its region. AQAP has established itself as the first of the AQ affiliates to make attacks against the United States at home a central goal. As you know, the group made its debut in this regard with its December 25, 2009 attempt to destroy an airliner bound for Detroit. Then, in October 2010 it sought to blow up several U.S.-bound airplanes by posting bombs that were intended to detonate while in the planes’ cargo holds. As those efforts and AQAP’s failed attempt on the life of Saudi Arabia's deputy interior minister demonstrated, the group is both technologically innovative and eager to put new tactics into use quickly.

AQ affiliates are also taking on a greater share of the propaganda work. Here too, AQAP is at the forefront. Last July we saw it release AQ’s first English-language online magazine, Inspire, and four subsequent issues have since been released. Although the magazine failed to arouse sustained interest from Western media, it has provided a platform for Anwar al-Aulaqi, who has emerged as an operational and ideological leader of AQAP – and let me underscore, Aulaqi is no mere messenger but someone integrally involved in lethal terrorist activities. Through Aulaqi’s sermons, videos and online writings, AQAP has opened up a new field of recruitment among English language speakers.

Moving to Northwest Africa, no group has made a bigger name for itself in the kidnapping for ransom business than al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and I should add that kidnapping for ransom has become one of the foremost sources of revenue for AQ-related groups everywhere. AQIM has raised tens of millions of Euros in the past several years through kidnap for ransom operations. AQIM released a Frenchwoman and two Africans in February but retain four Frenchmen abducted from the AREVA uranium company compound in September in Niger. In January, we saw an attempted kidnapping of two young Frenchmen in Niger fail, who were killed during a rescue operation involving Nigerien and French commandos. We believe much of this ransom money goes to logistically sustain the organization but there is plenty as well to build truck bombs for instance which have been used in Mauritania and Niger with limited success. AQIM has attacked and ambushed military forces in Mauritania and Algeria recently as well as others in Niger and Mali; the group is also working to increase its operational reach in West Africa.

If we look at the Horn of Africa, we see that al-Shabaab is a somewhat different kind of organization, composed of a range of groups with varying motivations and interests. Some of al-Shabaab’s senior leaders have links to al-Qa’ida and are interested in waging a global struggle, while other members have a purely Somali agenda or simply are in it for the money. Yet this group has also expanded its reach: Last July, we saw al-Shabaab conduct its first major attack outside of Somalia when it claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings at the time of the soccer World Cup that killed 76 people in Kampala, Uganda. Al-Shabaab’s widening scope of operations and safe haven in Somalia, makes it a continuing threat to East Africa and U.S. interests in the region. In addition, al-Shabaab has a cadre of Westerners, including fighters of ethnic Somali descent drawn from the global Somali diaspora and American converts, that make it a particular concern.

Al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) has continued to suffer leadership losses and its constituency dwindled further. Though AQI remained capable of carrying out occasional signature attacks, it is believed to be responsible for the February attack on Iraq’s largest oil refinery in Baiji and the late March attack on the Salah Ad-Din Provincial Council Headquarters. Still, its violent tactics have failed to destabilize the Iraqi government or ignite the sectarian violence the group sought. Instead, we saw a successful 2010 election in Iraq and a decision by Sunni leaders in the country to participate in the political process.

Stepping back, it is clear that this shift in activity toward the affiliates has been underway for some time. But the events of the last few months in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere have altered the context dramatically. We are in a fast-changing landscape – a season of transformative change in the Middle East whose full implications are still taking shape. The changes of government and broad-based efforts to win new freedoms for the people of the region hold enormous promise. Tremendous numbers of citizens advanced peaceful public demands for change in a precedent shattering way, and in some places like Libya and Syria, we have seen others risk and sometimes lose their lives through opposition. They have done so without reference to AQ’s incendiary world view, thus upending the group’s longstanding claims that change would only come through violence. These men and women in the streets have underscored anew and in the most powerful fashion the lack of influence al-Qa’ida exerts over the central political issues in key Muslim-majority nations.

Should these revolts result, as we hope, in durable, democratically-elected, non-autocratic governments, AQ’s single-minded focus on terrorism as an instrument of political change would be severely and irretrievably delegitimized. This would be a genuinely strategic blow. The successful democratic outcome of the demonstrations we have seen – the striving of so many to enjoy their basic human freedoms – is something all of us should support, because this is a profound good in its own right. But I want to add that from the security perspective, we also have a great deal to gain. Because democracies increase the space for peaceful dissent, and give people a stake in their governance, it greatly weakens those who call for violence. We should be clear: This is a moment of great possibility for Americans, the global community, and most of all inhabitants of these Muslim-majority nations.

Inspiring as the moment may be, we cannot ignore the attendant perils. The political turmoil has distracted security officials in a number of countries. We are concerned with both the issue of terrorist transit in light of instability in Libya, and with the threat posed by loose munitions that were previously under Libyan government control. We are working aggressively to counter these potential dangers, though this will continue to be complicated by the lack of resolution to the current unrest. Undoubtedly, terrorist groups will be tempted to exploit the situation to carry out conspiracies. We know the turmoil has caught the eye of AQ, which is trying to insinuate itself into the picture. Terrorist plots could have significant disruptive implications for states undergoing challenging, difficult democratic transitions.

II. What we are doing to address this changing threat?

To begin with, we are working with our various interagency partners, such as homeland security, the military, and the intelligence community to keep Americans and our interests safe. The subject of the innovations in particular in homeland security would easily fill a whole other lecture. But with this whole of government approach, we are comprehensively strengthen our partnerships around the world by ensuring that all U.S. government security assistance providers are working from the same playbook, making sure that our assistance is more balanced to improve both security and long term governance and rule of law. Helping our partners more effectively confront the threat within their borders is both good counterterrorism and good statecraft.

So let’s look at some of the key regional issues, beginning with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

As, everyone recognizes, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas region and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province continue to be used as a base for terrorist organizations operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Pakistani security forces have undertaken efforts to counter these threats. Pakistan has made some progress on the CT front against other groups, specifically against Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). But the challenge remains to make these gains durable and sustainable.

In Pakistan, we are focusing on shared threats, as well as addressing Pakistan’s political and economic challenges. Since 2009, we have worked with the Pakistani government and the Pakistani people, including through our enhanced Strategic Dialogue, which met twice last year at the Ministerial level. I co-chaired the Law Enforcement and Counterterrorism Working Group, which includes representatives from the FBI, DoJ, Treasury, and DHS, and which has been focused on three main issues: establishing a cooperative law enforcement framework, illicit finance, and border security.

We are working closely with the Government of Pakistan on a range of counterterrorism-related capacity building projects, including numerous training courses for Pakistani police, which are administered by the State Department’s Diplomatic Security bureau. Our International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs also works closely on border security and other law-enforcement matters. It routinely provides Pakistani security and police forces with equipment to counter extremism. And it is truly a whole of government effort. For example, the FBI and DoJ continue work with their Pakistani counterparts on investigatory, prosecutorial, and training matters. Treasury and DHS are also interacting with Pakistan on several important matters relating to terrorism finance and border security. Even as we've endured serious challenges to the relationship, some of which have made headlines, we've continued civilian and military assistance throughout the country and solidified our cooperation.

Pakistan today is more willing to take on extremist groups that directly threaten Pakistani targets, such as military bases, intelligence offices, and police stations. The Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan is a prime example of such a group. We continue to press Pakistan for increased action against that group, to engage other allies on the dangers posed by LeT, and to encourage all parties to take appropriate action against these groups.


Obviously, we are talking here about a country smack in the midst of a transition and in the headlines every day. But to put things in perspective, let me back up a bit. The gravity of the AQAP threat was clear to the Obama administration from day one, and we’ve been focused on Yemen since the outset. In the spring of 2009, the administration initiated a full-scale review of Yemen policy and that led to a whole-of-government approach to Yemen that led, first, to a reengagement with the government in Sanaa on counterterrorism after years of a cool relationship. Our approach also aims to coordinate our efforts with those of other international actors. Our strategy seeks to deal with imminent and developing threats at the same time that it addresses the root causes of instability in Yemen and to improve governance. Central to this approach is building the capacity of Yemen’s government to exercise its authority and deliver security and services to its people.

Given the interlinked nature of Yemen’s challenges, and the implications for U.S. interests, we’ve adopted a comprehensive and sustained approach taking into account political, cultural, socio-economic, and security factors. To help meet immediate security concerns, we have provided training and equipment to particular units of the Yemeni security forces with counterterrorist and border control responsibilities. In coordination with our security efforts, the USG has also increased development assistance to Yemen significantly. Development programs for Yemen went from roughly $11M to over $100M.

While we are in a period of uncertainty, I’d stress that our shared interest with the Yemeni government in fighting terrorism, particularly defeating AQAP, does not rely solely on one individual; we are hopeful that any Yemen successor government will be a solid counterterrorism partner.

North Africa

A moment ago I mentioned the importance of international partnerships in fighting terrorism. Where possible, these should be not only bilateral but regional, because the threat knows no borders. The U.S. created such a regional partnership in North and West Africa, the Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) in 2005. The strategic goals of TSCTP are to: build military and law enforcement capacity; foster regional cooperation; and counter violent extremism. We want the region to lead CT efforts, rather than be led by a group of Western allies. TSCTP is working to enhance a range of military and civilian capabilities in the Sahel including Mauritania, Mali, Chad, and Niger, as well, farther south with Nigeria, Senegal, and Burkina Faso. It is also facilitating cooperation between those countries and our TSCTP partners in the Maghreb – namely Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.

We believe that this program is beginning to pay off with partners taking a greater than ever role in CT operations in the region. We have also seen positive signs of greater regional cooperation among those countries, particularly between Algeria, Mauritania, and Mali. Moreover, select Allies, such as Canada and France, have also joined to bolster TSCTP efforts with their own programs that complement ours.

While we work in regional fora, I’d also point to our bilateral engagement. In Algeria, for example, the quality of our CT relationship has improved dramatically in the last two years. In the most critical aspects, military & law enforcement-information sharing, we have greatly improved linkages with the Algerian government. One recent example of this was the inauguration of our bilateral Counterterrorism Contact Group meeting this past March, which I represented for the USG.

Given all that is going on in Maghreb, successful democratic transitions in Tunisia and Libya will be the best bar to inroads by violent extremists in both countries and in North Africa more broadly. In the short term, however, the instability in Libya and the transition in Tunisia may provide AQIM with new openings, and we cannot afford to become complacent. We must continue to adjust our strategy in response to the evolving conditions, work with our partners in the region to preserve the gains we’ve made through TSCTP and bilaterally, as well as ensure that we remain on track to achieve our goal of containing and marginalizing AQIM.

Horn of Africa

The chronic instability and lack of strong government in Somalia creates fertile ground for al-Shabaab, which poses a serious threat to U.S. and regional interests. The recent offensive by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has shown some promise in fighting al-Shabaab, but a great deal more work remains to be done.

The United States continues to pursue a dual track approach to create stability in Somalia. On track one, we support the Djibouti Peace Process, while continuing to encourage the TFG to reach out to moderates that support peace and stability in Somalia. On track two, we are broadening our outreach to include greater engagement with Somaliland, Puntland, and regional and local anti-al-Shabaab actors and groups throughout south-central Somalia in order to broaden security and stabilization efforts throughout the country. We are also reaching out to Diaspora communities and civil society to foster dialogue and peaceful reconciliation.

In addition to our work with Somalia, we are also engaging with regional partners to build and sustain their counterterrorism capabilities. The Partnership for Regional East African Counterterrorism is the USG’s program for long-term engagement and counterterrorism capacity building in East Africa.

III. Strategic Counterterrorism

The Arab spring only underscores the need for us to further improve our capacity building programs with an even stronger focus on civilian law enforcement and the rule of law. But I do believe we were already on the right track. The kinds of efforts I have described in Yemen, the Trans-Sahara, and elsewhere are the cornerstones of our strategic counterterrorism policy: strengthening political will while building the capacity that will ultimately result in partner nation ownership of more effective security capabilities. We are working to make the counterterrorism training of police, prosecutors, border officials, and members of the judiciary more systematic, more innovative, and more far-reaching. We are addressing the state weaknesses that terrorism thrives on – helping our partners to more effectively counter the threat that they and we both face.

Before closing, I want to mention one other area of activity where we are innovating – namely in our programs to counter radicalization and violent extremism. Compared to the capacity building work, which has been going on for many years, this is a new activity, but I believe it will be crucial. This focuses on three main lines of effort that will reduce terrorist recruitment: delegitimizing the violent extremist narrative in order to diminish its “pull”; developing positive alternatives for youth vulnerable to radicalization to diminish the “push” effect of grievances and unmet expectations; and building partner capacity to carry out these activities.

To counter AQ propaganda, we have helped stand up within the State Department, an interagency body called the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication (CSCC), under the Bureau of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, to push back against AQ’s online and media activities. One emphasis of the CSCC’s work has been re-orienting the Digital Outreach Team to place greater emphasis on challenging the purveyors of extremist messages online, in Arabic and Urdu. This has included producing some original video content that some of you may be familiar with.

Successful Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) involves more than messaging, however, and we are working with the interagency to develop programs that address the upstream factors of radicalization in communities particularly susceptible to terrorist recruitment overseas. Efforts include providing alternatives for at-risk youth, encouraging the use of social media to generate local initiatives, and enhancing the resilience of communities to counter extremism.

Another central part of my office’s CVE effort is strengthening our partners’ capacity and engagement in CVE work, propagating best practices, and building an international consensus behind the effort to delegitimize extremists and their ideologies and ultimately, host governments and local communities are best positioned to execute truly sustainable CVE efforts.

To conclude: the threat remains formidable but we are making progress. Al-Qa’ida has proven itself an adaptable and nimble adversary. In the race to protect the United States and to stay “one step ahead” we too must stay sharp, improve our offense, maintain our intellectual edge, and continually adapt to changing conditions on the ground. We must constantly evaluate each situation to ensure that we use our most effective tools of civilian statecraft to continue to serve our National Security interests. This is an enduring challenge, and, as we’ve seen recently, the specifics can change quickly and dramatically. But I think we are working on the right principles and along the right guidelines.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. I welcome your questions.

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