ISIS, Shabaab, and Al Qaeda in India: Who Is the U.S. at War With?

This week, the U.S. launched air strikes against al Qaeda’s Somali affiliate, al Shabaab, apparently aiming to kill the group’s leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane. For the second time in two weeks, the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) released a video of one of its members decapitating an American journalist, which it says is in response to U.S. air bombardment. And finally, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the post-bin Laden leader of “core” al Qaeda, released a video yesterday declaring a new AQ affiliate: Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), to encompass India, Burma, and Kashmir.

So is the United States at war with any of these groups? All of them? If so, how would that war end? Could that war end? The answers remain unclear.

The Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed by Congress in the weeks after 9/11, gave domestic authorization for the president to go after al Qaeda, the Taliban, and anyone else responsible for 9/11. In the years since, this has been interpreted to include groups labeled “associated forces” of al Qaeda and the Taliban. Who are these “associated” groups? The Obama administration mostly isn’t telling, only saying that AQ’s Yemen affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has made the cut. AQAP has attempted several attacks on the U.S., all either bungled or thwarted.

But with the recent strikes in Somalia, it seems like al Shabaab is on the list as well. The U.S. has struck in Somalia before, but has said that they were targeting AQ operatives that were present in Somalia and working with Shabaab. This strike, targeting Shabaab leadership(Godane is not a member of core al Qaeda), suggests that this time is different, and that the Obama administration believes it is authorized to be at war in Somalia. But Shabaab has never attacked the United States, and may not even pose a threat to the U.S. homeland.

The new affiliate, AQIS, joins a list of official AQ affiliates, including Shabaab in Somalia, AQAP in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Northern Africa, and Jabhat al Nusra in Syria. None existed on 9/11. Are these groups (and any future AQ affiliates) automatically added to the “associated forces” list by default because of their formal connection with al Qaeda, even if they are limited in ambition and scope to local action? Is the U.S. automatically at war with all of them, ad infinitum?

Meanwhile, it’s been reported that some in the administration are seeking to justify strikes on ISIS by arguing that the group should be considered an “associated force” of al Qaeda, and covered by the 2001 AUMF, despite the fact that the two have publicly split and have even conducted open warfare against each other. If any group isn’t an “associated force” of al Qaeda, it seems to be ISIS. (For more, see Human Rights First’s new FAQ on ISIS and the AUMF here).

Operating with this level of confusion isn’t a sustainable way to conduct counterterrorism operations.

The administration needs to take concrete steps to limit the use of the 2001 AUMF, as President Obama has said it intends to do, and clarify that war footing is the exception, not the rule, for counterterrorism. To that end, it should disclose which groups are on the list of “associated forces” covered by the 2001 AUMF. For groups not covered by the AUMF, the administration must go to Congress for authorization to use force against them. If attacks against the United States are imminent, the president has ample power under Article II of the Constitution to defend the country and take action. Otherwise, the government has many tools – including military force and covert operations, but also counterterrorism partnerships, training and economic assistance to allies, financial sanctions against terrorist groups/networks, and countering radical messaging—to use against groups not covered by the 2001 “war” authorization.

Failing to make these changes will keep the status quo: an untenable, endless war against a secret and endless list of enemies.

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Published on September 4, 2014

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