The Missing Narrative on al-Qaeda

by Karina Sandhu

Beginning September 11, 2001 and ending on May 2, 2011, in the eyes of many Americans, the terrorist organization al-Qaeda, was born, raised, lived, and died. Despite the fact that al-Qaeda was founded in 1989 and continues to exist today, many American citizens seem to have forgotten about the organization.

And why wouldn’t they? As recently as September 11, 2012 we were told by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that currently “al-Qaeda is a shadow of its former self”. In other words, al-Qaeda is no longer a threat. Because the media has “strong tendency to ‘personify’ the stories they cover” the story of al-Qaeda centered on the life and death of Osama bin Laden. With the capture and killing of bin Laden by U.S. Navy Seals in May of 2011, the U.S. media buried the narrative of al-Qaeda and Terrorism.

In a review of the article Terrorism after al-Qaeda; A Change of Course? author Jessica Baran writes “There needs to be a certain novelty behind stories that are covered…” In the 10 years that bin Laden was the face of al-Qaeda, he was front-and-center in the stories that the media covered. His face was as recognizable as the President’s. With bin Laden’s death came the loss of novelty of the narrative of al-Qaeda and terrorism.

Owing to the lack of news coverage, terrorism slowly but surely became less of a threat to homeland security and—if anything—more of a hassle. On September 10th, 2012 a panel of celebrities on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight” barely scratched the surface of this topic when they discussed how safe the U.S. is eleven years after the September 11th attacks and the death of bin Laden. The guests mutually decided that airport policies were a hassle and that we were safe enough to quickly move on to a more interesting topic, the popular new novel “50 Shades of Grey.”

One day after the segment aired, the anniversary of the September 11th, the U.S. Embassy Consulate in Libya was attacked. Four Americans were killed.  Weeks after the attack, Senator Hillary Clinton spoke at a U.N. meeting stating al-Qaeda was “working with other violent extremists to undermine the democratic transitions underway in North Africa, as we tragically saw in Benghazi.”

Other sources expand on Clinton’s statement. Paul Rogers notes that “the movement has spread, with increased activity in Yemen…Elements are strong in Somalia…a recent resurgence of linked activity in Iraq…movement in Nigeria.” While bin Laden has gone away, al Qaeda has not and they are growing in numbers. Given al-Qaeda’s expansion to other countries and distinct hatred of the United States, it is clear that the terrorist organization we forgot still poses a threat to this country.

Last week in Foreign Policy, Mary Habeck argued that the attacks in Benghazi show that our current strategy for dealing with the group is failing. That strategy, she claims, is based on a faulty assumption

that the “core” is a small terrorist group whose main objective is attacking the United States, that the affiliates have primarily local concerns, that there is little command and control between the “core” and the affiliates, and that, therefore, the United States must only kill off the central leadership to be safe.

In fact, she believes, “al Qaeda is nowhere near defeat, and is, in fact, doing far better today than at any time in its existence.”

The narrative of Osama bin Laden being the biggest threat to the U.S. was an easy one to grasp. We can wrap our heads around fearing a person whose name and face is consistently splashed across TV screens and newspaper headlines. As a culture of storytellers, it’s harder for us to understand an entity that exists in the shadows, such as al-Qaeda. In reaction to our lack of understanding about terrorist organizations, the U.S. media seems to have moved on from discussing the threats that al-Qaeda poses as a terrorist organization. The issue that this brings to the forefront is how we understand continued al-Qaeda-based threats and terrorism in general.  While bin Laden may be gone, our understanding of the threat al-Qaeda and terrorism could potentially pose should not be buried with him.