Carnegie Mellon University
September 11, 2019

CMU Expert Discusses Post-9/11 Al Qaeda, Security Issues

By Julianne Mattera

Julianne Mattera

Despite Al Qaeda’s weakened state from post-9/11 counterterrorism efforts, the fight isn’t over.

As the terrorist organization works to regroup in Syria, the United States’ limited access and oversight in the region could help provide the pieces needed for the group’s reemergence, according to Colin Clarke, assistant teaching professor in Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Politics and Strategy.

Clarke recently co-authored a Foreign Policy magazine article with Charles Lister, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, that looks back on Al Qaeda’s changes over the past 18 years since 9/11. In it, they describe an organization that has changed focus, divided into new groups and, as a brand, competed for primacy with the Islamic State.

At the same time, other threats have emerged. As Islamist attacks have decreased on U.S. soil, right-wing, white supremist attacks have increased. In the following Q&A, Clarke talks about Al Qaeda, white nationalist terrorism and recent events.

Q: It has been nearly two decades since 9/11. What are we seeing now with Al Qaeda?

A: The center of gravity in the war on terrorism has shifted from South Asia to the Levant. Al Qaeda is seeking to regroup in Syria, which has important implications for both the region and the West. Namely, it is simply another hotspot for civil war and jihadist violence. Failed states and ungoverned spaces pockmark the globe, from the well-known areas like Syria and Afghanistan, to entire regions or swaths of territory in the Sahel and the archipelagos throughout Southeast Asia.
 
Q: How much of a threat does Al Qaeda present to the United States at this point?

A: We should never become complacent with the threat presented by Al Qaeda. However, it is critical to acknowledge that the United States has made significant progress in making the homeland less vulnerable to attack in the nearly two decades since 9/11.

Q: President Donald Trump recently canceled peace talks with the Taliban, which would have coincided with a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Does it make sense for the United States to move forward with such peace talks or do other steps need to be taken before that could be achieved? What would these peace talks have to include for the peace strategy to be successful, with security measures that don’t allow terrorists groups to flourish in the region?

A: It doesn't make sense for the U.S. to move forward with peace talks. This was never truly about peace. It was about withdrawal, and the administration eschewed more traditional interagency processes, preferring instead to keep the negotiations to a handful of trusted insiders. Now that talks have seemingly collapsed, we should expect violence in Afghanistan to intensify.

To answer the second part of your question, the only security measure that can guarantee that terrorist groups don't flourish in the region is a sustained U.S. military and intelligence presence, although one could debate how big the force size should be and what the focus should be. For instance, should one focus on more kinetic operations or an intelligence-led mission focusing heavily on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance?

Q: With or without peace talks, if U.S. troops were drawn out of Afghanistan, what impacts could this have on the region?

A: The resulting security vacuum in Afghanistan would be a boon for militant groups, including Afghanistan but also the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). At this point, Al Qaeda would prefer to keep a robust presence in Syria, but would also expand throughout South Asia, including Afghanistan.  
 
Q: Since the ISIS caliphate territory no longer exists, how much of a threat does the group still pose to the United States and international community?

A: As I wrote in my recently published book, “After the Caliphate,” ISIS propaganda still poses a threat in terms of radicalizing homegrown violent extremists already on U.S. soil. ISIS also retains the capability to launch external operations, although Europe is a more likely target than the U.S. for a number of reasons. This includes geography, for starters — Europe is closer to Syria than the U.S. — as well as demographics. Thousands of Europeans went to fight with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, so the connections, linkages and networks make Europe far more vulnerable than the U.S., for example.
 
Q: At what point do white supremacist terrorist shootings receive the attention and concern globally that foreign terrorist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda have received?

A: I think that, finally, the international community is beginning to recognize that violent white supremacy is a transnational movement and presents just as much of, if not a greater threat, than jihadist terrorism. 

All you have to do is look at the data. According to the Anti-Defamation League, between 2009-18 right-wing extremists, including violent white supremacists, were responsible for three times as many deaths in the United States as were Islamists. In May, a senior F.B.I. official testified that the bureau is pursuing about 850 domestic terrorism investigations, a “significant majority” of which are related to white supremacist extremists.

Colin P. Clarke is an assistant teaching professor in the Institute for Politics and Strategy (IPS) at Carnegie Mellon University, where he also has responsibilities with the Institute for Strategic Analysis (ISA) and serves on the executive board for the Masters of Information Technology Strategy (MITS) program. He also is a Senior Fellow at The Soufan Center, an associate fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT), and a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI).