WASHINGTON -- Warning: Al-Qaida may be seeking franchise opportunities at a location near you.
Osama bin Laden has been dead for almost three years, but people seem to be spotting his terrorist organization everywhere. Al-Qaida in Iraq just took Fallujah. Republican leaders remain convinced that al-Qaida attacked us in Libya. A September report from the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) finds no fewer than 20 al-Qaida entities, affiliates and associate organizations -- and that doesn't include "associated movements within the al-Qaida network."
These guys must have more franchisees than Chick-fil-A.
With all this talk of al-Qaida expanding like so many Jihadi Juice stands, Americans could be forgiven for thinking bin Laden mini-me's are running around Yemen, Syria, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, and in much of Africa and the Near East. But are they really?
It appears primarily to be a case of label proliferation -- much like in the Cold War, when Americans began to see Soviet-style communists throughout Asia, Africa and the Americas. This caused confusion over which enemy was worth fighting. Now there are lots of groups claiming allegiance to al-Qaida, and the actual al-Qaida, in dire straits, is happy to recognize sympathetic organizations. American neoconservatives, meanwhile, know that tying a foe to al-Qaida helps to undermine the Obama administration and to maintain support for a robust military response.
Yet in all but a couple of cases, the original, "core" al-Qaida has no control over -- or coordination with or financial ties to -- these organizations. The vast majority of the so-called al-Qaida organizations are focused on domestic affairs in their own countries and are not primarily concerned with the United States or international terrorism. Certainly, these groups pose a potential threat to U.S. interests, but not as much as, say, Hezbollah, which has nothing to do with al-Qaida.
What matters is not the label but the mission. The terrorists who killed Americans in Benghazi, for instance, are obviously a menace. But insisting that they are tied to al-Qaida, as Republicans such as House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., continue to do, is true in much the same sense that we are all connected to Kevin Bacon by six degrees of separation.
"Everybody's gotten all confused about what al-Qaida is and isn't," AEI's Frederick Kagan tells me. The Obama administration defines it narrowly as the terrorists, primarily in Pakistan, whose main objective is to harm the United States. That group has been systematically decimated since it engineered the 9/11 attacks.
But the September report by Kagan's Critical Threats Project argued that "Al-Qaida affiliates have evolved and now threaten the United States as much as (if not more than) the core group." By Kagan's definition, a group's interest in attacking the United States is "a criterion, but it's not the only criterion."
The report listed six affiliates and awarded some of the better-known groups their own initials: AQAP, AQI and AQIM. Kagan says al-Qaida's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has personally accepted groups' requests to be affiliates and has even been known to negotiate territorial disputes. Then come "associates" (which identify themselves with al-Qaida but aren't recognized) and even associates of affiliates.
At the liberal Center for American Progress, Lawrence Korb doesn't dispute that there are all kinds of groups that identify with al-Qaida or are embraced by al-Qaida. But of all the groups on Kagan's list, Korb argues that only one, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, comes close to sharing al-Qaida's reach and focus on attacking the United States.
"When you call someone al-Qaida," Korb says, "it conjures up this international threat rather than people who are using the terrorist threat over there to accomplish local goals and who like to use 'al-Qaida' because it's a chic name."
Calling a group "al-Qaida" has a political benefit for President Obama's critics: It undermines the administration's assertion that it has destroyed al-Qaida's capability. "Al-Qaida is on the march," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said after the Benghazi attack in 2012.
But this supposed al-Qaida group is Ansar al-Sharia, and even Kagan says "we do not assess that Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi is a formal affiliate of al-Qaida." It may be, at most, linked to another group affiliated with al-Qaida.
That this group killed the U.S. ambassador and three others in Benghazi makes it monstrous and dangerous. But calling it al-Qaida doesn't make it so any more than calling it Chick-fil-A will make it serve tasty nuggets.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.