Stories by Dan Byman

Expert Voices

Setback in Syria signals weakness for al-Qaeda

Masked al-Nusra fighter with flag
An al-Nusra fighter holds his group flag as he stands in front of the governor building in Idlib province, north Syria. Photo: Al-Nusra Front Twitter page via AP

After al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, broke off in 2016, the U.S. government and other observers portrayed the split as a public relations move. The assumption was that al-Qaeda would retain an unofficial link to its loyal force in Syria, which would then be free to partner with local groups that must reject al-Qaeda in order to secure aid from the U.S. and its allies.

In fact, the separation may have been more of an acrimonious divorce. Recent revelations, including a statement by a senior Syrian jihadist, a public chastisement from Ayman Zawahiri, and an exchange among various jihadists in Syria, suggest that al-Qaeda wields less influence than previously feared and that U.S. efforts to isolate al-Qaeda in Syria are bearing some fruit.

Why it matters: The al-Qaeda core has not carried out a major terrorist attack in years, and much of the “action” is undertaken by local groups bearing its name. As the Islamic State’s caliphate collapses, Al-Qaeda’s inability to hold on to its most important affiliate raises questions about its ability to regain leadership over the global jihadist movement.

Expert Voices

Trump's North Korea designation underscores problems with terrorism list

North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un signs on Nov. 28, 2017, a document said to authorize a missile test. Photo: KRT via AP Video

The United States' list of terrorism sponsors doesn't make sense. Too often, states that are loathsome but not deeply involved in terrorism appear on the list, while important sponsors are ignored.

In re-designating North Korea, the Trump administration has cited the regime's assassination of Kim Jong-un's half-brother in Kuala Lumpur in February. Really, though, Washington just wants to ratchet up pressure on Pyongyang. North Korea may be a hostile, even evil, regime, but it is far less involved in terrorism than U.S. partners like Pakistan, whose support for the Taliban and other extremist groups has resulted in the deaths of many U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

Sudan illustrates another problem: It's too hard to get off the list. Although Khartoum remains a gross human rights violator, it has cut support for Al Qaeda and other groups, and the State Department calls it a "cooperative partner" for U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

Why it matters: These inconsistencies make it harder to "name and shame" the states that do sponsor terrorism. Perhaps even worse, they give offending states less of an incentive to curtail their support, as they may be left on the list anyway.