“Contrary to some arguments, most Al Qaeda leaders are not interested in establishing a global caliphate and do not seek to overthrow regimes in much of the world,” Jones writes.
Instead, they tend to have rather more parochial goals. “They want to establish Islamic emirates in specific countries or regions, though they may be agnostic about a broader violent jihad.”
The goal for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, for example, is to overthrow regimes in North Africa, particularly Algeria, and replace them with an Islamic government, Jones notes.
In many cases, “France, rather than the United States, is the most significant foreign enemy.”
Captured Al Qaeda documents show that both Osama bin Laden and the current Al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, primarily emphasized guerrilla campaigns to overthrow “apostate” governments in the Middle East.
Indeed, approximately 98 percent of Al Qaeda attacks between 1998 and 2011 “were part of an insurgency where operatives tried to overthrow a local government or secede from it – and were not in the West.”
That said, Al Qaeda affiliates do pose some threat to US citizens overseas. The RAND analysis notes that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its allies were involved in the 2012 attack that killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya, for example.
There also have been a growing contingent of foreign fighters – perhaps several thousand, according to Jones, who has served as an adviser to the Pentagon – traveling to Syria to fight. Many of these volunteers are coming from Europe.
This is a problem because “volunteering for war is the principal stepping stone for individual involvement in more extreme forms of militancy,” Jones argues. “When Muslims in the West radicalize, they usually do not plot attacks in their home country right away, but travel to a war zone first.”