The State Department Warns of an 'Evolved,' Decentralized Al Qaeda

Anti-government gunmen hold their weapons as they patrol in Fallujah last month. Anti-government gunmen hold their weapons as they patrol in Fallujah last month. AP file photo

In its annual terrorism report, the State Department warned that the rise of aggressive, decentralized al Qaeda affiliates scattered through the Middle East and North African regions presents "serious threat to the United States, our allies, and our interests." In the report, the department outlines how losses among al Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan has forced the terrorist organization into an "accelerated" splintering. 

Because of that decentralization, the state department notes, the remaining members of al Qaeda's central leadership are having some trouble issuing orders that the local affiliates actually follow. From the report: 

AQ leadership experienced difficulty in maintaining cohesion within the AQ network and in communicating guidance to its affiliated groups. AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was rebuffed in his attempts to mediate a dispute among AQ affiliates operating in Syria – al-Nusrah Front and al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI), now calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – which resulted in the expulsion of ISIL from the AQ network in February 2014. In addition, guidance issued by Zawahiri in 2013 for AQ affiliates to avoid collateral damage was routinely disobeyed, notably in attacks by AQ affiliates against civilian religious pilgrims in Iraq, hospital staff and convalescing patients in Yemen, and families at a shopping mall in Kenya.

That being said, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri still holds significant ideological sway over affiliated al Qaeda groups working across the regions. Countries seeing increasingly autonomous al-Qaeda splinter groups include Yemen, Syria, Iraq, northwest Africa, and Somalia, the AP notes

The report, unsurprisingly, also focuses on the presence of extremist fighters in Syria: "Iran, Hizballah, and other Shia militias provided a broad range of critical support" to extremist fighters in the country, the report reads, as sectarian violence increased in Syria. 

During the press briefing on the report, CNN asked Ambassador Tina Kaidanow, the State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism, about the effect, if any, of Edward Snowden's NSA whistleblowing activities on the U.S.'s ability to fight terrorism. Kaidanow's answer: "The Snowden revelations were an unauthorized disclosure of classified information," the ambassador said, adding, "It is therefore not surprising if I tell you that it has done damage." She called the leaks "very damaging" to the U.S.'s security efforts. This is something the U.S. has often indicated in response to those leaks — particularly that the terrorists have "changed tactics" since the NSA's bulk surveillance programs became public.

The full report is here

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