Playing by a different set of rules
Much is said of the asymmetrical nature of the conflicts between the US and non-state actors like al-Qaeda. The former sports a modern military with all the trappings of an industrial state, while the latter is a ragtag band of highly-motivated, dispersed individuals with a limited means of carrying out their jihad.
But most modern states and a group like al-Qaeda are also asymmetrical in the sets of rules they play by. In a way, al-Qaeda gets to eat its cake and have it too. Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen is seizing territory and consolidating its power, actions familiar to governments and state-based actors. Meanwhile, they continue to use less savory tactics like kidnapping an Algerian governor, something few modern states could do while maintaining legitimacy and international esteem. And even as al-Qaeda mixes terror with traditional territory-seizing operations, its Western enemies are constrained by a set of rules that al-Qaeda does not respect it for following, nor would be respected by al-Qaeda itself. Abu Qatada, recognized by the UN’s 1267 committee for his association with al-Qaeda, enjoys the protections of Europe’s Court of Human Rights, while al-Qaeda beheads prisoners of war in reprisal for crimes committed by others.
The difference in means is the easiest way to define the asymmetrical character of the US/al-Qaeda conflict, but the difference in tactics and the cultural acceptance of them cannot be overlooked. Victory for al-Qaeda does not require its tactics to be perceived as legitimate by its enemies, only its supporters. al-Qaeda in Iraq’s sectarian rampage cost al-Qaeda central a great deal, and Iraqi Sunnis threw their support behind al-Qaeda’s enemies or competitors.
Go through enough TSA security checkpoints at the airport and eventually you’ll hear an American grumble how the “terrorists have won” as they spread their legs and hold their arms up for a full body scan. al-Qaeda cannot hope to prevail over the US militarily, but it has succeeded in forcing us to change our way of life and adopt security measures that range from merely inconvenient to outright opposing the spirit of the Constitution. Hunting down and killing individual al-Qaeda members is a pursuit that can last us decades and will eventually have diminishing returns, especially with al-Qaeda’s present dispersed, franchise-based structure. But perhaps it is time to give them a taste of their own medicine and force them to adapt to us in negative ways as they’ve made us adapt to them. If merely convincing al-Qaeda’s audience of the error of the terrorist group’s ways was sufficient, the GWOT would have been over years ago. We may never win over their potential pool of supporters, but we can let at least let al-Qaeda alienate them.
To this end, co-opting al-Qaeda’s propaganda may be one of the few tactics that Western governments would find amenable enough to stomach. The group’s sophisticated multimedia propaganda campaigns now largely bypass the traditional media outlets they previously used as intermediaries to reach their target audience directly, and the use of social media is an opening that Western intelligence agencies can exploit to insert false flag propaganda. America’s Tea Party activists and Occupy Wall Street protesters were constantly paranoid of having their opposition insert fake activists at their rallies. The fear was that these opposition elements would commit extreme acts or use extremist rhetoric for the benefit of the watching media, thus painting the picture of an illegitimate fringe group. Disagreement about means and ends is nothing new between al-Qaeda and its franchises, and there is an opportunity there to engineer an artificial split, making elements of al-Qaeda appear to be enemies of Islam to the very people they hope to persuade and inspire to join the jihad.