The following interview with Juan Zarate for DCFR’s Global Themes brief series offers a wealth of knowledge about security issues and counterterrorism. Through comments on diverse topics such as al-Qaeda’s metastasized activities—to how the U.S. needs to articulate a strategic view to counter terrorism of the future and offer leadership—Zarate reveals a roadmap of where we have been and where we may be heading. Zarate comments on his top five security threat challenges, many of which will dominate counterterrorism and foreign policy for years to come. Download the brief.
Read a brief passage:
The challenge now is the threat as we know it. The threat that hit us on 9/11 was an al-Qaeda-driven threat. Al-Qaeda has always viewed itself as the vanguard of a Sunni extremist movement and revolution in many ways. But over time the al-Qaeda core has largely lost control and influence over the broader terrorist movements that exist. Now in 2012, there is a landscape that is much more fractured and metastasized, with some elements of al-Qaeda diffusing to various locations. Al- Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen still exists like an al-Qaeda franchise, driven by those who once fought in Afghanistan with bin Laden. But there are other al-Qaeda elements emerging, for example in the Gaza strip. They are ideologically aligned with the extreme al-Qaeda viewpoint and agenda, but aren’t being directed by Ayman al-Zawahiri or anybody else in Pakistan.
The nature of terrorism and its manifestations are happening in very different ways. It’s not just terrorist cells or operatives being trained and sent out to hit American cities or European cities. Instead, the fractured nature of this movement is actually embedding itself in ongoing conflicts and insurgencies. In Yemen, for example, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula looks much more like an insurgency – holding ground, controlling villages. The Al-Shabaab movement, which is aligned with al-Qaeda in Somalia, looks very much like a quasi- nationalist insurgency movement trying to control territory and ports, attack systems, etc. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb looks like a group of smugglers mixed with rebels and terrorists and drug traffickers.
The environment is much more complicated. It’s very hard to draw the line between al-Qaeda/non al- Qaeda and terrorist/non-terrorist. This is all happening while you have the political winds and tectonics shifting very dramatically in the Middle East. This opens opportunities for those who are ideologically aligned with al- Qaeda, even if al-Qaeda isn’t driving the agenda and developments in the Arab world. At the end of the day, al-Qaeda becomes a player. We’re seeing this in Syria with people who are tied to al-Qaeda or may have affiliations with al-Qaeda in Iraq; they are actually driving a lot of the violence and a lot of the opposition to President Assad in Damascus. To me, this is a much more complicated environment than we’ve ever seen before.