A decade after the 9/11 attacks, United States officials are saying that victory over Al Qaeda is imminent. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared in July that the US is “within reach” of “strategically defeating” the jihadi group. But there are reasons to be sceptical of this idea. The weight of evidence suggests the danger may in fact grow in the coming decade.
An initial reason for scepticism is that we’ve heard these kinds of claims before. In September 2003, for example, President George Bush boasted that two-thirds of Al Qaeda’s known leadership had been captured or killed and the group had been deprived of its Afghan sanctuary. In April 2006, the US intelligence community’s consensus held that Al Qaeda had been defeated, as reflected in the National Intelligence Estimate’s assessment that “the global jihadist movement is decentralised, lacks a coherent strategy, and is becoming more diffuse.” The following month, Bush echoed this, saying, “Absolutely, we’re winning. Al Qaeda is on the run.” Bush and the US intelligence community overstated Al Qaeda’s weakness. By July 2007, official assessments of the group had shifted radically. The new National Intelligence Estimate released that month concluded that Al Qaeda “has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability.”
The fact the intelligence community has been wrong on this matter before doesn’t mean it will always be wrong, but there’s little reason to think its understanding of Al Qaeda has drastically improved. Many views held recently by analysts haven’t borne out, including the consensus opinion that Osama bin Laden could be found in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (he was in Abbottabad), and the majority view that bin Laden was a figurehead within Al Qaeda (he didn’t).
But this scepticism about US intelligence is buttressed by objectively measurable indicators. The 9/11 Commission Report, analysing the factors that allow terrorist groups to execute catastrophic attacks, concluded that they require physical sanctuaries giving them “time, space, and ability to perform competent planning and staff work,” as well as “opportunities and space to recruit, train, and select operatives.”
Al Qaeda enjoyed one such sanctuary on September 11, 2001, in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Today Al Qaeda affiliates enjoy four: in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and northern Mali. Nobody has a cognisable strategy to dislodge militants from these areas, a fact that in itself suggests it’s far too early to envision Al Qaeda’s death.
But beyond the threat of a large-scale attack, Al Qaeda’s overarching strategy is working fairly well. The group is devoted to undermining its enemies’ economy; certainly the collapse of the US’s financial sector in September 2008 made it seem mortal. In turn, that produced a strategic adaptation by jihadis, toward what they call the “strategy of a thousand cuts.”
This strategy emphasises smaller, more frequent attacks, many of which are designed to drive up security costs. Al Qaeda placed three bombs on passenger planes in the past twenty-two months: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s underpants bomb in December 2009, and two bombs hidden in ink cartridges that were placed on FedEx and United Parcel Service planes in October 2010. Abdulmutallab’s detonator failed, and the ink cartridge bombs were found before they were set to explode, but Al Qaeda doesn’t necessarily view those attacks as failures. Terrorist plots are designed to drive up security costs even the world enters an age of austerity. Budgets will be slashed, including counter-terrorism budgets. Unless the countries that Al Qaeda is targeting find a way to do more with fewer resources, the chance of stopping any given attack will diminish. We may not see another 9/11 in the next decade, but it’s likely we’ll see more attacks succeeding in Europe, India, and the US that look more like the atrocities perpetrated in Madrid, London, and Mumbai. In short, there’s little support for saying Al Qaeda’s threat is no more. Making policy based on faulty factual assumptions is unhelpful at best, and at worst can help a “defeated” foe rise from the ashes.
The author is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and recently published a book, Bin Laden’s Legacy