RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
When Osama bin Laden was killed by American Special Forces one year ago, it raised questions about the future of al-Qaida. To imagine what that future might be, a new book explores the history of al-Qaida. Seth Jones is the author. He's an expert on international terrorism who's advised the U.S. Special Operations Command.
In his book, "Hunting in the Shadows," Seth Jones offers a kind of graph of al-Qaida affiliated terrorism, three waves as he see it. The first wave began with attacks on the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. It peaked with the September 11th attacks and then ended when the Taliban were driven out of Afghanistan.
SETH JONES: There's then a second wave that emerges around the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq that is followed by a surge of al-Qaida activity in Madrid, in London, in Casablanca, in Bali. And then by about 2006, al-Qaida in Iraq in particular begins to lose its foothold. It conducts a range of civilian casualties, and there's a major reverse wave.
MONTAGNE: I'm curious if you think there would have been a second wave if the United States and its allies had not invaded Iraq.
JONES: Well, I think the - that's probably unlikely, or at the very least, if there was a second wave, it would have been much smaller in its impact.
MONTAGNE: And it was beaten back to a large extent by the rise of the Sons of Iraq, or groups that reacted against the terrorism in Iraq and fought it, on a battlefield.
JONES: Yeah, what's interesting is when I looked at the patterns in the loss of power and control and influence of al-Qaida in Iraq, it began around 2005 and 2006, well before the surge in U.S. forces. And frankly, it was primarily a result of local Sunnis frustrated and frankly grossed out by the civilian casualties that al-Qaida in Iraq was perpetrating.
So the primary role of the U.S. in provinces like Anbar was to support these efforts, Sunni and in some cases Shia groups and police against al-Qaida in Iraq.
MONTAGNE: It seems as if the al-Qaida that was created out of the invasion of Iraq, it seems like they actually did themselves in, in a way, because they were so brutal and they were really killing civilians and innocents and people who didn't - would not have necessarily seen them as an enemy initially.
JONES: I think there's no question that al-Qaida's decision to conduct brutal attacks against civilians with car bombings and beheadings that were captured on video did al-Qaida in, in Iraq. It was a strategy that was targeted and impacted local Iraqis that turned many of the sheiks against al-Qaida.
And frankly, what's interesting is we're now able to see some of the declassified documents between al-Qaida's central leadership. They wrote a range of letters to Zarqawi, al-Qaida in Iraq, pleading with him to stop killing civilians, pleading with him to stop targeting Shia, and arguing very strongly that if he continued to do that, al-Qaida in Iraq would lose support and would ultimately be defeated.
MONTAGNE: That brings us to the third wave. What would you put as the point at which that was set off?
JONES: The third wave really began because al-Qaida was able to gain a foothold in Yemen. Led in particular by Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-Yemeni, who was dedicated not just to building an al-Qaida sanctuary in Yemen, but who was specifically interested in targeting the United States.
And in 2009, for example, we saw very clearly a Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the December 25th Christmas Day bomber, who managed to make his way from Dubai to Yemen and was willing to target the United States.
Awlaki walked through the attack against the U.S. homeland, provided training to Abdulmutallab, provided an innovative bomb that would make its way through airport detectors because it had no metal components on it, and then told him very specifically you must wait until you get over U.S. airspace before you detonate the bomb, so the bomb goes off and kills Americans over U.S. airspace.
The ability of Awlaki to include both getting out his messages on the Internet and social media, and willing to become operational and support attacks against the United States out of a base in Yemen really started that third wave.
MONTAGNE: How dangerous are these what seem like franchises of al-Qaida that exist now and how do they compare to the al-Qaida of the Afghanistan days back in the '90s, like al-Qaida in Yemen, al-Qaida in Somalia, al-Qaida in the deserts of North Africa?
JONES: Well, al-Qaida's affiliates have shown an increasing ability to conduct successful improvised explosive devices, suicide attacks in their own regions. Where they've had problems, though, is taking those tactics, techniques and procedures and trying to conduct an attack against the U.S. homeland.
MONTAGNE: Well, you've come to a couple of conclusions about what not to do that you draw from this recent history. What exactly are the ways in which the West can invite, if you will, another wave of terrorism, and what is al-Qaida - could it do wrong?
JONES: Well, from the United States standpoint, if it put large numbers of boots on the ground in a Muslim country, large numbers of conventional forces, that would likely invite radicalization and support to al-Qaida. There are several foreign policy steps that would be potentially dangerous. U.S. support to an Israeli strike or a U.S. strike against Iranian facilities could potentially trigger or help trigger a fourth wave.
In addition, if the United States turns its attention away from the areas where al-Qaida has gained a foothold towards the Asia-Pacific, which is where the U.S. government looks like its leaning right now based on the January strategy released by the Pentagon and supported by the president, if that leads to a decline in U.S. support for key regimes in Yemen and Somalia and other countries, that could certainly allow al-Qaida to gain a foothold. In fact, I would argue it already has.
From al-Qaida's standpoint, certainly its decision to target a range of civilians could undermine its popular support. The killings in Iraq and Algeria and a range of other places led a number of very conservative Sunni clerics to denounce al-Qaida as un-Islamic. That kind of activity now would likely trigger that kind of a response even from conservative Sunnis.
MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.
JONES: Thank you very much, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Seth Jones is the author of "Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of Al-Qaida Since 9/11."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.