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 constituent 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.