David Sanger and Mark Mazzetti report in the New York Times this morning that al-Qaeda has "fewer than 500 members" in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is almost certainly true, but the numbers alone do not demonstrate that al-Qaeda is in decline. Al-Qaeda has never had more than "several hundred" formal members according to a 2005 Century Foundation report authored by Richard Clarke and others in position to assess the organization prior to 9/11. (Clarke's numbers certainly exclude al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was much larger.)
Formal membership is not a particularly useful measure of al-Qaeda's strength because the group operates largely via other organizations or by opportunistically utilizing individuals that arrive in the border region and are willing to attack abroad. We need to get more creative about how to understand al-Qaeda's power.
Both the Century Foundation Report and Sanger and Mazzetti do some good work on that front. The Century Foundation asserts that al-Qaeda never supported a cadre of more than a couple thousand affiliated jihadis and the Times explains that al-Qaeda has developed deep "synergies" with a variety of other militant groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
Are we really to measure al-Qaeda's strength based on some assessment of its "synergies" with other groups? What is the baseline? How do you compare the late 1990s, when al-Qaeda collaborated with a relatively strong, but very independent, Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) to the situation today where a faction of LIFG has joined al-Qaeda but has vastly diminished resources? Does "synergy" mean they collaborate on attacks in Afghanistan together or that they agree on attacking western targets abroad? How do you measure the relative effectiveness of al-Qaeda's training programs from the late 1990s to today? Camps are smaller, but do you need a jungle gym to learn how to hijack a plane?
The point here (for the time being) is not to make an argument one way or the other about U.S. policy in South Asia, but rather that analysis of the al-Qaeda movement has to get better, and numbers do not come close to telling the whole story -- especially when they have not really changed.
Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation.
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