Al Qaeda is Dead, Long Live Al Qaeda

Juan Cole had an interesting post on yesterday’s seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in which he made a bold declaration: “The original al-Qaeda is defeated.”   No, he’s not saying there aren’t Muslim terrorists calling themselves “al Qaeda” ready and able to kill us.

I mean the original al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda as a historical, concrete movement centered on Usama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, with the mujahideen who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s at their core. Al-Qaeda, the 55th Brigade of the Army of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan under the Taliban. That al-Qaeda. The 5,000 fighters and operatives or whatever number they amounted to.

That original al-Qaeda has been defeated.

Usamah Bin Laden has not released an original videotape since about four years ago. There was that disaster with the cgi black beard. There was the old footage spliced in by al-Sahab. But nothing new on videotape. I conclude that Bin Laden, if he is alive, is so injured or disfigured that his appearance on videotape would only discourage any followers he has left.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s number two man, is alive and vigorous and oppressively talkative. But he has played wolf so many times with no follow-through that he cannot even get airtime on cable news anymore, except at Aljazeera, and even there they excerpt a few minutes from a long tape.

Marc Sageman in his ‘Understanding Terror Networks’ estimates that there are less than a thousand Muslim terrorists who could and would do harm to the United States. That is, the original al-Qaeda was dangerous because it was an international terror organization dedicated to stalking the US and pulling the plug on its economy. It had one big success in that regard, by exploiting a small set of vulnerabilities in airline safety procedures. But after that, getting up a really significant operation has been beyond them so far.

This long intro is followed by a longer, thoughtful analysis noting that most of AQ 1.0’s consitutent and affiliate groups are weaker, too.  I had already presumed this was the case and Cole’s analysis nicely lays out the facts.

Cole and I, not surprisingly, disagree on this front:

The Bush administration over-reacted to September 11, misunderstanding it as the action of a traditional state rather than of a small asymmetrical terrorist group. Its occupation of Iraq lengthened al-Qaeda’s shelf life. But poor strategy by the Sunni radicals themselvesf brought the full wrath of Iran, the Iraqi Shiites, Jordanian intelligence, and the United States military down on their heads.

Now, I’m not going to defend the war in Iraq as a logical follow-on to 9/11, even though I supported the invasion for the reasons laid out at the time and have continued to support the fight during the long, sometimes dark, years since given the alternatives.  Still, while Iraq may have been Osama’s proverbial briar patch, it was also a bridge too far.  As much damage as that war has done to our military capacity and treasury — to say nothing of the human and diplomatic toll — it is surely responsible for much of the weaking of “the original al Qaeda.”

More importantly, while I agree with Cole that we made terrorism too central a focus in the weeks and months following the attacks, I disagree that the end of AQ 1.0 means the end of the fight. Terrorism reamins a threat against which we must remain vigilant, both in terms of hardening the targets — making the job of the terrorists harder — and going after their resources.

The battle is no longer mostly military but the war is far from over.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, Terrorism, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Andreas from Norway says:

    Al-Qaeda is not dead. Its so typical of people to think so just because Al-Qaeda hasnt attacked for a couple of years. Al-Qaeda is as strong as it was prior to 9/11, if not stronger. Never forget that Al-Qaeda has an incredeble patience. Just because they havent attacked in a while doesnt mean that Al-Qaeda is weakened!

  2. Al-Qaeda is as strong as it was prior to 9/11, if not stronger

    Upon what does one base that assertion?

  3. Andreas from Norway says:

    Analysts: Al-Qaeda back to pre-9/11 strength
    http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2007-07-11-us-terror-threat_N.htm

    Dozens of terror attacks has been thwarted in Europe since 9/11, and i just cant believe “experts” are allowed to tell these lies about Al-Qaeda beeing weekened. Recently it was stated that JUST in britain about 30 terror plots where under investigation. And there are probably many more that the police does not know about.

  4. Bithead says:

    So, Cole is trying to sell the package the left couldn’t, two years ago… namely, ‘declare victory and get out, regardless of facts on the ground’.

    Color me unimpressed… a situation not unusual with Cole.

    Now, I’m not going to defend the war in Iraq as a logical follow-on to 9/11,

    Of itself, no. It was however the trigger that forced us to respond to a situation getting increasingly out of control.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    There’s a middle ground between Dr. Cole’s position (that Al Qaeda is just a “small asymmetrical terrorist group”) and what he claims is or was the position of the Bush Administration (that the attack on 9/11 was “the action of a traditional state”) and it’s pretty close to what my opinion is, namely, that Al Qaeda and groups like Al Qaeda require at least the tacit support of traditional nations to function.

    Dr. Cole’s position is clearly what it has been for some time: that the attack was just the work of a handful of guys. I’ve always suspected that he was reasoning from consequences. In order for a purely law enforcement model to be in any way successful against terrorism that’s what you’ve got to believe.

  6. sam says:

    It was however the trigger that forced us to respond to a situation getting increasingly out of control.

    I’m not sure I understand. Can you amplify?

  7. G.A.Phillips says:

    Al-Qaeda is not dead. Its so typical of people to think so just because Al-Qaeda hasnt attacked for a couple of years.

    Yes the true believers of Islam will always be around practicing their religion.

    Al-Qaeda is as strong as it was prior to 9/11, if not stronger

    But is this anything more then a liberal talking point used to attack Bush with?

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    Andreas:

    I think that Dr. Cole means something different by “Al Qaeda” than either you or the experts quoted in USA Today do. I believe he means just the specific guys who’ve been identified as being part of the 9/11 plot. Not the affiliated organizations. Not the franchisees. Just the core group.

  9. Bithead says:

    Sam;

    I’m not sure I understand. Can you amplify?

    To do so, I would point to Lockerbie, to Beruit, to The ‘Palastinians’, to the first WTC attack and so on, as a few examples.

    I’m looking, you see, at Militant Islam as a whole. The militant islamist threat as a whole has been building for some time, and has never really been correctly addressed, which in turn each attack each afront, each move Militant Islam made was increasingly bold.

    Along comes 9/11, and Bush not only looks at the current situation, but looks back over time and correctly concludes that a response to this threat is overdue, and acts on that conclusion. That American soil was attacked for the first time is an important trigger, certainly, but I suggest even absent this, either Bush or those who come after him would be eventually forced to respond with… well, with force.

    Dave;

    I think that Dr. Cole means something different by “Al Qaeda” than either you or the experts quoted in USA Today do. I believe he means just the specific guys who’ve been identified as being part of the 9/11 plot. Not the affiliated organizations. Not the franchisees. Just the core group.

    Well, that’s exactly the attitude I’m respondng to in my answer to Sam, Dave. They’ve managed to get stonger by playing that little shell game with shaowy orgs and groups. Nobody gets the blame from the internationalists because the groups that claim responsibility for such attacks as we’re discussing tend to be rather undefined from the perspecrtive of, say, the UN, simly beacuse they’re more or less unalligned with one nation state or another. The UN has an unfortunaate history of being unable to deal with such groups because of that lack of official linkage. Which, I figure, is exactly the reason behind that setup, you see.

  10. sam says:

    OK, I see. Thanks, Bit. (I was having trouble determining the referent of ‘it’ in “It was however the trigger”.)

  11. Bithead says:

    Well, the orignal reference I was responding to was in the context James put forward; Iraq.

    Let me be clear here… although this is nothing I’ve not said before, here or at my place. Standing by itself, Iraq certainly was not a logical follow-on, despite the linkages between Iraq and terrorism in general, and that because of those, here was quite enough reason to invade Iraq on it’s own merit. Most presidents would ahve done what’s always been done befre; treat it as an individual incident, and let it pass. Again.

    But given the wider conditions I mention, inclduing Iraq, it’s my feeling that invading iraq WAS the corect response. I’m still convinced of that.

  12. steve says:

    The core AQ was decimated in Afghanistan. AQI, is a poorly run franchise. I think it is unclear how much AQ has rebuilt while we have been involved in Iraq. Certainly, the Taliban has prospered. As I read over Arabic and other foreign sources, I think it clear that AQ has lost most of its influence.

    Steve

  13. Spoker says:

    Am I expected to believe that because AQ and their mass media machine has 1) Been broken 2) Chosen not to clear actions with the media 3) Changed tactics 4) Decided it is better to be secret than a PR dog (choose one or more) that AQ has been defeated and lost its influence. Naivete sure seems to be a terrible thing to rely on with when other peoples lives are in your hands.

  14. anjin-san says:

    The militant islamist threat as a whole has been building for some time

    So naturally, we had to attack a secular Arab state to deal with it…

  15. G.A.Phillips says:

    So naturally, we had to attack a secular Arab state to deal with it…

    We attacked Iraq because he violated the U>N> resolutions relentlessly, sorta like the way you repeat donking points, and Saddam and his sons were crazy a-sholes, he had a chance to avoid it he chose to take his medicine.

    What in the great green hell dude, did Saddam owe you money or something?

  16. anjin-san says:

    We attacked Iraq because he violated the U>N> resolutions relentlessly

    Untrue. We attacked Iraq because Bush said they had WMD that were poised to strike us.

    and Saddam and his sons were crazy a-sholes

    If we are going to attack people for that, we better reinstate the draft and start making more tanks, cause we will be very busy.

  17. Simmons says:

    Al-Qaeda core may be unable to carry out operations, but I would not go as far to call it “defeated”.

  18. Bithead says:

    Untrue.We attacked Iraq because Bush said they had WMD that were poised to strike us.

    Ummm.. noo… Actually, both are true. And both are good reasons, along with the reasons I stated. Why is it that the left, who usually likes to be considered so broad-minded, has such problems with dealing with multiple reasons in this case?