Al Qaeda in Libya?

While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s impassioned back-and-forth with Senators Ron Johnson and John McCain were the highlights of her testimony during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s hearing on the 2012 Benghazi attack for most media outlets, my attention was drawn to another portion of the hearing.

During his questioning of Clinton, Ranking Committee Member Sen. Bob Corker stated that “the thinking that when Osama Bin Laden was gone, that was the end of Al Qaeda” was erroneous and that “we know nothing could be further from the truth.” He later added that “the Arab Spring has actually ushered in a time where Al Qaeda is on the rise.”

Wow. It sounds here as if Al Qaeda is a thriving and growing organization. And Corker isn’t the only politician or pundit to make such claims, especially in regard to Libya.

While many jihadi organizations adopt the symbols and rhetoric of Al Qaeda, such as the flag above–a variation of the original Al Qaeda flag now used by Al Qaeda in Iraq–this does not make these organizations the same entity as the original Al Qaeda central.

But is it an accurate description of the organization, the ideology, and the conflict in Libya? Spoiler Alert: It’s not.

The major problem with this narrative of Al Qaeda is that it conflates the original centralized organization of Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri with the ideology the organization followed, innovated, and spread.

The original Al Qaeda organization, formed in the late 1980s, has been essentially dismantled and decimated—most of its personnel have been killed or captured, most of its wealth and assets have been frozen or depleted and, as a result, its ability to organize the logistics of large scale attacks has greatly atrophied.

So yes, the killing of Bin Laden was emblematic of the prior initiated and ongoing death knell of Al Qaeda central. It basically now only operates as a name brand, issuing messages every now and again and giving its blessing and cursory, vague input to various attack plans that are truly the brainchild and handiwork of other smaller, more regionally-focused, decentralized organizations and terror units.

Al Qaeda, the original organization, is near death. Yet, its Sunni jihadist ideology lives on throughout the world. Many Sunni jihadist groups adopt Al Qaeda’s symbols, aspects of its ideology, and rhetoric—sometimes even claiming broad affiliation to the original organization.

The 2012 attacks in Benghazi that resulted in the death of four Americans was most likely carried out by Ansar al-Sharia, a group often used interchangeably by politicians and pundits with Al Qaeda. Now the name Ansar al-Sharia itself remains a popular title for various local jihadi groups—in Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco—and literally means “in support of sharia.” It is a name often adopted by groups who support the goals of Al Qaeda central and hold its religious ideology dear.

The existence of these groups, however, does not mean we have failed in annihilating the original Al Qaeda organization. As stated earlier, we have. Yet its ideology lives on, not only in Libya, but in Yemen, in Somalia, in Uzbekistan, throughout the Middle East, throughout North Africa, throughout the world. France recently invaded Mali to root out such jihadi elements. But again, they are fighting regional jihadists not the Al Qaeda of Bin Laden.

Now as the acclaimed V for Vendetta points out, while you can kill countless numbers of humans, “you cannot kill an idea” because “ideas are bulletproof.”

I agree with the first part. Ideas, however, are far from bulletproof. And this is a truism that America and the West should keep in mind if it wishes to help steer the Arab Spring into a future of liberalism, secularism, and democracy rather than that of Islamic extremism. Now while actual bullets cannot harm an idea, the “bullets” of conflicting, more persuasive ideas can. The idea of feudalism has mostly fallen in this world to those of capitalism and socialism, for example.

In similar fashion, the only real way to debilitate the idea of Al Qaeda and jihadism lies not in invading and occupying nations, not in covert drone wars, nor in isolationism or neutrality. Rather it lies in supporting the ideas of democracy, liberalism, and secularism through building accountable, effective governmental and nongovernmental institutions, aiding likeminded regional leaders, and promoting cultural introspection and change.

Thankfully, while I heard some of this mentioned by Clinton and members of the committee during this recent hearing, it seems other (*cough* mainly Republican) senators remain more concerned with combatting their “real enemy”—the Obama administration.