Vail Daily column: 14 years later |

Vail Daily column: 14 years later

Matthew Kennedy

My skin tingles a little at the beginning of September. I will probably pause — and reflect on — the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks for the remainder of my life. The event compelled Americans to accept several neglected and/or distantly acknowledged facts: The United States is a part of the international community; the international community doesn’t revolve around Washington; and the menace, danger and lethality of militant Islamist terrorism cannot be ignored. Both of those were forcefully, brutally and tragically thrust into our psyche 14 years ago.

The 14th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks requires asking several questions: What is the status of the al-Qaida/militant Islamist movement? And where is does the country stand surrounding the issue?

Al-Qaida is now a skeleton of the pre-9/11 organization.

• A battle is occurring for the soul of the militant Islamist movement between al-Qaida and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

• Counter-terrorism remains a top-concern within American national security circles, though it isn’t the principal priority any longer.

American authorities redirected and morphed U.S. national security and foreign policy towards neutralizing the al-Qaida threat shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Their efforts were mostly successful. The al-Qaida of 2015 is an echo of the pre-Sept. 11 organization. Its leadership, operational and financial capabilities are decimated to an almost non-existent status. Al-Qaida now entails a central organization based along the Pakistani-Afghanistan border. It additionally consists of affiliates in Algeria, Yemen, Syria and Kenya — affiliates ideologically loyal to al-Qaida’s central organization, yet who are operationally independent. What’s interesting about these groups is they are also participants in a de facto conflict between al-Qaida and ISIL.

Al-Qaida and the Islamic State are struggling to win the hearts and minds of the militant Jihadist movement. Both have different ideologies and approaches. Al-Qaida advocates an Islamist ideology. It believes in working with the local population of areas it is dominant in, instead of imposing its beliefs. Al-Qaida lastly remains interested in attacking the U.S. homeland. ISIL believes in strictly enforcing Sharia law over the areas it governs — an enforcement involving the killing and beheading of violators among punishments. ISIL’s harsh tactics is the principal reason for the two organizations’ split. The Islamic States is currently dominating the dispute. ISIL understands the key to reaching and attracting recruits, especially 20 and 30 somethings, isn’t via lengthy video messages (as al-Qaida espouses), but through utilizing Facebook, Twitter and other social media instruments. The Islamic State has also succeeded in capturing and holding large areas of territory, whereas al-Qaida hasn’t. The difference has augmented the Islamic State’s attractiveness at al-Qaida’s expense.

The al-Qaida-ISIL dispute is being waged among al-Qaida’s affiliates and in various geographical areas. Members of al-Qaida’s associates have pledged loyalty to the Islamic State. The organizations most affected by this division are al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and the Arabian Peninsula. The feud is most openly witnessed in Syria, Yemen and, to a lesser extent, Libya. Al-Qaida and ISIL have expanded their competition into the Indian subcontinent. Both groups are attempting to enhance/augment their recruitment and operational activities in the region. The quarrel is dividing many regional groups traditionally loyal to al-Qaida, most notably the Taliban.

The al-Qaida, ISIL and militant Islamist issue is dividing the American counter-terrorism community. It is arguably no longer the top-priority within U.S. national security and foreign policy circles. A strong probability is China and Russia’s activities now occupy those positions — that doesn’t mean the issue is a bottom concern. A debate is currently occurring in U.S. national circles as to where to devote resources: Al-Qaida or the Islamic State? Al-Qaida supporters contend its Syrian and Yemeni based operatives may might utilize both regions’ turmoil to plot attacks against the United States homeland. Islamic State’s advocates are concerned about inspired attacks resulting from the organization’s savvy use of the Internet. What may change the debate is if one of those organizations — or linked individuals — prevails in instituting a 9/11, Madrid 2003 or London 2005 size attack on U.S. soil.

Fourteen-years have past since the 9/11 attacks. The United States hasn’t experienced another related event. The nature of the militant Islamist threat has evolved. Al-Qaida remains a menace, even though it is a skeleton of the pre-9/11 organization. ISIL’s emergence may prove more ominous in the long-term, if it successfully overtakes al-Qaida as the leader of the militant Islamist movement. The only near certainty is that the al-Qaida/ISIL threat will remain a concern regardless of either organizations’ status for the foreseeable future.

Matthew Kennedy has a master’s degree in diplomatic studies from the University of Westminster in London. He’s lived in Europe, Asia and Russia. Comments or questions can be directed to

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