According to testimony by CIA director John Brennan before a House panel last week, Al Qaeda recently deployedmid-level planners from Pakistan to Syria. Intelligence officials fear these planners would be used to recruit some of the estimated 1,200 fighters from the United States and European and redirect them to attack the West. In addition to portending a higher likelihood of attacks on the West emanating from Syria, this development may represent efforts by Al Qaeda to shift its organization away from its current networked organization back to the more lethal structure it had before September 11, 2001.
If Al Qaeda is already well established in Syria, as reported in the media, why would it send planners from Pakistan? Core Al Qaeda, the organization of Ayman al-Zawahri and the late Osama Bin Laden, is not the same organization as the jihadis currently fighting the Assad regime. As of about a month ago, there were two "Al Qaeda affiliates" in Syria. However, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was officially disenfranchised by Al Qaeda leadership. ISIS is now in open warfare with both the Assad regime and al Nusra Front, Al Qaeda's remaining affiliate in Syria. As I described in an earlier article, what some call the "Al Qaeda network" is not a unified organization, but actually a loose confederation of separate groups using the Al Qaeda brand.
Since 2001, Al Qaeda has not been able to launch a successful centrally directed attack on the West. In order to maintain relevance, Al Qaeda leaders allowed other terrorist groups to use its name while these groups often pursued their own local objectives. Al Qaeda also called on individuals who were not members of any terrorist group to carry out attacks. While Al Qaeda pointed to attacks by others to claim it was expanding its reach, a claim often repeated uncritically in the Western media, these developments were actually indicators of a terrorist organization in decline. By 2010, Al Qaeda was humiliated by the raid that killed an isolated Osama Bin Laden. That same year, Al Qaeda saw itself on the sidelines of the Arab Spring. Al Qaeda's ideology, which was based on the proposition that they only way to remove despotic dictators was through terrorism directed at the West, was laid bare.