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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Survey: What Is Al Qaeda?

What is Al Qaeda? This may seem like an easy question to some people, but I've come to believe it is not. While many of us have set definitions in our minds about what is or is not part of Al Qaeda, those definitions don't always agree.

Survey: What is Al Qaeda?

I believe this is more than a philosophical question. We're now in our 10th year of a global war on terrorism, and the definition of what we are warring against is less clear than ever, especially at the level of U.S. and Western policy.

These policies are powerful. They can rob someone of life, liberty or net worth with just the stroke of a government official's pen, using procedures that often lack accountability, transparency and/or hope of appeal. The question of how we target those policies, and against whom, is therefore extremely important.

Is there a consensus definition of Al Qaeda? Is there a consensus for which groups should be targeted as if they are part of Al Qaeda? Is there a consensus for which individuals are members of Al Qaeda, or what the phrase "member of Al Qaeda" even means?

I think it's extremely important that we try to understand the parameters of this issue, and whether all parties with an interest agree or disagree about where they draw the line. And we all have an interest in this, whether we're academics studying the issue, law enforcement or military officials fighting the war directly, or voters who care about the nation's policies.

Therefore, a poll. With a great deal of help from Clint Watts at, we've put together three questions which represent a first effort to collect data on how different parties define Al Qaeda. The questions are not entirely simple, and they may be frustrating, but the frustration is part of the issue here.

There is a fourth question about what part of this world you work in, which is also very important. I suspect we're going to see that people with different jobs and interests have definitions which differ in important ways.

I would like to encourage everyone to take a few minutes and respond, and forward the survey to anyone who has an interest in this subject. The more respondents we get, the more useful the poll will be. Once we have collected some data, I will have more to say on this subject. Thanks for your valuable time.

Click here to take the survey


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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