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Keep Al Qaeda out of the Iran file

Keep Al Qaeda out of the Iran file
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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo painted an alarmist picture of the close ties between Al Qaeda and Iran. The timing and content of the remarks indicate that the current administration is primarily concerned not with the threat of Al Qaeda, but with raising the pressure on Iran. Viewing all Middle East issues from this lens of Iran, which the next administration also seems set to do, masks the hard reality of Al Qaeda and drives the United States away from effective counterterrorism policy.

Much of the information released confirms prior assessments, including the facilitation by Iranian entities of the presence and financial activities of Al Qaeda. Senior Al Qaeda members have been based in Iran for years, including the second in command, who was killed in Tehran last summer. The United States has recently identified a senior media operative, who is also the son in law of the leader of Al Qaeda, in this cohort.

Pompeo accused elements within the Iranian regime of directly enabling Al Qaeda, including with the formation of its headquarters, and allowing senior operatives to plan attacks. Many analysts wary of the politics have met all these claims with skepticism. There would be nothing especially surprising about Iran backing Al Qaeda, however, superficial arguments on the differences between Al Qaeda with Shia Islam aside. The current administration has to release evidence over its assertions.

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This node in Iran is dangerous, and its facilitation of Al Qaeda needs to be condemned and countered. However, painting this node as the primary Al Qaeda threat is folly. To start, the claim that Iran is replacing the Al Qaeda base in Afghanistan and Pakistan hides the reality that Al Qaeda is seeking to recreate its haven in Afghanistan as American forces withdraw and the United States negotiates with the Taliban. But the larger issue here is that Al Qaeda decentralized years ago and remains dangerous.

Al Qaeda affiliates around the world push the mission with local success. Take Al Shabab in Somalia, whose capabilities are cited by Pompeo. This group has a key stronghold and economic base and is developing global terrorist attack capabilities. A Kenyan member of Al Shabab was recently charged with plotting an attack. Yet as Al Shabab grows, pressure on the group is falling. The current administration ordered a withdrawal of most American forces from Somalia. African Union forces in Somalia also have started a drawdown. The destabilization of East Africa, including civil war in Ethiopia, further weakens efforts to counter Al Shabab.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, may also strengthen. New designation of the Al Houthi movement as a foreign terrorist group, meant as a blow to Iran, limits options for a negotiated end to the war in Yemen. Ending the conflict is necessary to transform the conditions that favor Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has a demonstrated track record of international terrorist attacks. The United Arab Emirates further withdrew its military from the conflict in Yemen. That is a serious concern because its forces were operating in some of the areas where Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has the most success with attacks.

Al Qaeda also has success in the Sahel of West Africa, where a branch of the local affiliate is challenging the French counterterrorism mission and positioning itself as the source of security governance for the vulnerable communities. The leader of the French security mission in Mali identified that Al Qaeda affiliate there as the most dangerous terrorist group in the country. Indeed, the local Al Qaeda franchises have been a more reliable source of propaganda than the often belated publications of the central media arm, which is run by a commander based in Iran.

The United States needs a new policy to confront the threat of Al Qaeda. The next administration could start by reversing the withdrawal of forces from Somalia and promising continued American military support in the French counterterrorism mission in West Africa. Joe Biden and his team must develop a plan that takes Al Qaeda seriously. They must resist any urge to view all Middle East action from the lens of Iran.

Fighting Al Qaeda and the broader movement it is part of needs to involve breaking from the traditional counterterrorism policy and nesting it into a strategy focused on changing the conditions of the vulnerable citizens on which terrorist groups prey. Without a new course, the threat of Al Qaeda will become much greater in a few years than it is today.

Emily Estelle is a research fellow with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and is the research manager with the Critical Threats Project.