The hub for conterterrorism operations is the CTC’s Global Response Center. At its entrance is a three-foot by three-foot sign that says, TODAY IS SEPTEMBER 12, 2001. It’s a reminder of the urgency required to combat global terrorism. Along the wall are two photos of the World Trade Center and one of the Pentagon after the attacks.
-Ronald Kessler, The Terrorist Watch, pg 188
As the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s demise, looms before us, questions are being asked:
What is the state of al-Qaeda?
Are we safer?
When President Obama took to the airwaves to announce and confirm that “We got him”, it was a great day for America. The face and figurehead of al-Qaeda had finally been decapitated (Well…technically, a bullet through the head). It brought some level of closure for many Americans, even though Osama bin Laden and his organization has been decentralized and made impotent ever since they got their ass handed to them in Afghanistan, as well as all across the globe. Under the leadership of President Bush, with some level of continuity under President Obama, most of al-Qaeda’s original leadership and membership have been killed or captured over the last decade. We’ve warred with them in over 102 countries. Not just militarily and not just in two countries.
– Ambassador Ryan Crocker
bin Laden is dead. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, his nephew Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, Ramzi Binalshibh, Walid bin Attash, and Mustafa al-Hawsawi will be arraigned soon to face a death penalty trial.
Other notables remain at large, with bounties on their heads. The U.S. recently added a $10 million bounty for the founder of Lashkar-i-Taiba- seen as an international threat and not just a regional one.
So how is al-Qaeda today?
The emerging picture is of a network that is crumpled at its core, apparently incapable of an attack on the scale of Sept. 11, 2001, yet poised to survive its founder’s demise.
U.S. officials have debated “since bin Laden’s death what is the trajectory of this organization and when will we know that we’ve actually defeated it,” a senior U.S. counterterrorism official said.
The answer so far is split.
“The organization that brought us 9/11 is essentially gone,” said the official, among several who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. intelligence assessments of al-Qaeda with reporters a year after bin Laden was killed. “But the movement . . . the ideology of the global jihad, bin Laden’s philosophy — that survives in a variety of places outside Pakistan.”
After the United States responded to 9/11 decisively, and effectively dismantled what was then considered al-Qaeda’s “center of gravity”, the terrorist network adapted. Instead of the centralized command and control that had been its trademark, it became less “Chief Operator” than “Chief Motivator”, a move that helped spur Internet recruitment and domestic terrorism- a great problem faced today by the governments of the United States and other countries fighting terrorism.
The terror network’s focus turned to manipulating regional, local, tribal, and sectarian conflicts in order to promote its interests. It also “franchised” the al-Qaeda name and encouraged other terrorist groups in places such as North Africa, Southeast Asia, and parts of the Middle East (later, notably, Iraq) to operate under the al-Qaeda banner.
–The Black Banners, Pg 347
Even before al-Qaeda’s central leadership began relying upon Zarqawi and others not directly under their control and command to carry on the war and terror attacks when they could not, this was always about more than just a war with one terror organization and one man. Those who think we’ve been fighting against only “The Base”, have not been paying attention.
“Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”
-President Bush in an address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People, United States Capitol, Washington D.C., September 20, 2001.
We’ve been at war with what one might call a “global jihad movement”, consisting of many Islamic terror organizations with shared interests, goals, funding, and training; sometimes the barriers that separates one group from the next can get blurred or dissolved (Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad joining al-Qaeda, for instance). This is why you often come across news stories of terrorism that mentions “___________(fill in the blank), an affiliate of al-Qaeda,….”- not necessarily al-Qaeda, per se. Bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa declaring jihad against the United States was endorsed and signed by not only bin Laden and his group, but Zawahari’s EIJ and 4 others under the umbrella moniker, World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders.
This is why I often refer to the al Qaeda network, and not just al Qaeda.
And this is why I think it is a mistake for people to think that just because one man- Osama bin Laden- was finally “brought to justice”, or that al-Qaeda as we knew it before no longer exists, that we are free to move on with our lives and declare the war as being over.
Keep in mind, as well, that Zubaydah, heavily involved in terror-ties with al-Qaeda plotting against the United States, was not officially a member of al-Qaeda. And the mastermind of the 9/11 plot himself, KSM, did not swear bayat to Osama bin Laden until after the plot was carried out. Yet is there any question that just because they had yet to swear an oath of loaylty to bin Laden, that they weren’t a part of the war against America?
Here’s a partial list as example (by no means exhaustive nor current), of just some of the al-Qaeda affiliates (mostly pooled from Scott’s book, Saddam’s Ties to Al Qaeda, as quick reference):
Ulema Union of Afghanistan
Armed Islamic Group
Saafi Group for Proselytism and Combat
Asbat al Ansar
Lebanese Partisans League
Libyan Islamic Group
Harakat ul Ansar/Mujahadeen
Harakat ul Jihad
Moro Islamic Liberation Front
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan
*Fatah Revolutionary Council (FRC)
*Arab Revolutionary Brigades (ARB)
*Black September (Organization- BSO)
*Black June Organization (BJO)
*Revolutionary Organization of Socialist Muslims (ROSM)
*Ansar Al Islam
*Ansar Al Sunni
*Fayadeen Al Saddam
*The National Liberation Army of Iran (NLA, the militant wing of the MEK)
*People’s Mujahidin of Iran (PMOI)
*National Council of Resistance (NCR)
*Muslim Iranian Student’s Society (front organization used to garner financial support)
*Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) branch/Palestine Liberation Front (PLF)/branch- Abbu Abbas faction
(Note: “*” indicates terrorist group in pre-war Iraq)
Osama bin Laden may be gone along with the al-Qaeda brand as he defined it, but his #2 Ayman al-Zawahiri is the glue that still holds what’s left of the original namebrand together; and the franchise of Islamic terror itself is very much still alive in the world:
Far from being dead and buried, the terrorist organization is now riding a resurgent tide as its affiliates engage in an increasingly violent campaign of attacks across the Middle East and North Africa. And for all the admiration inspired by brave protesters in the streets from Damascus to Sanaa, the growing instability triggered by the Arab Spring has provided al Qaeda with fertile ground to expand its influence across the region.
Al Qaeda’s bloody fingerprints are increasingly evident in the Middle East. In Iraq, where the United States has withdrawn its military forces, al Qaeda operatives staged a brazen wave of bombings in January, killing at least 132 Shiite pilgrims and wounding hundreds more. The following week in Yemen, fighters from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula seized the town of Radda, while expanding al Qaeda’s control in several southern provinces. “Al Qaeda has raised its flag over the citadel,” a resident told Reuters.
Beyond these anecdotes, several indicators suggest that al Qaeda is growing stronger. First, the size of al Qaeda’s global network has dramatically expanded since the 9/11 attacks. Al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Somalia’s al-Shabab have formally joined al Qaeda, and their leaders have all sworn bayat — an oath of loyalty — to bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
These al Qaeda affiliates are increasingly capable of holding territory. In Yemen, for example, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has exploited a government leadership crisis and multiple insurgencies to cement control in several provinces along the Gulf of Aden. Al Qaeda’s affiliates in Somalia and Iraq also appear to be maintaining a foothold where there are weak governments, with al-Shabab in Kismayo and southern parts of Somalia, and al Qaeda in Iraq in Baghdad, Diyala, and Salah ad Din provinces, among others.
The number of attacks by al Qaeda and its affiliates is also on the rise, even since bin Laden’s death. Al Qaeda in Iraq, for instance, has conducted more than 200 attacks and killed more than a thousand Iraqis since the bin Laden raid, a jump from the previous year. And despite the group’s violent legacy, popular support for al Qaeda remains fairly high in countries such as Nigeria and Egypt, though it has steadily declined in others. If this is what the brink of defeat looks like, I’d hate to see success.
Also read Mary Habeck series of posts.
I believe al-Qaeda lost power and prestige after their defeat in Afghanistan. The manner in which Abu Ghraib got reported became a “recruitment bonanza” for the jihadi movement, breathing new life into al-Qaeda…until they were exposed as the greatest killers of Muslims, this side of Mecca.
And now, in a post-Bush era of increased Predator drone attacks and military excursions that have fueled anti-Americanism in Pakistan (along with high-profile incidents in Afghanistan), apparently al-Qaeda’s enjoying a resurgence of popularity:
In May 2011, shortly after bin Laden’s death, the Pew Global Attitudes Project released an opinion survey with the pithy headline: “Osama bin Laden Largely Discredited Among Muslim Publics in Recent Years.” Its findings have been widely trumpeted by those seeking to highlight the organization’s decreasing popularity in Muslim countries. And indeed, the poll found that support for al Qaeda, and for bin Laden himself, has been steadily declining among Muslims in Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Turkey, and a handful of other countries.
Yet a closer look at the data reveals that al Qaeda’s support has not fallen as far as the headlines would have you believe. According to the same Pew poll, roughly one-quarter of the Muslim population in the Palestinian territories, Indonesia, and Egypt still supports al Qaeda — some 73 million people. Even if that estimate is high, this seems a significant foothold for the organization, because al Qaeda doesn’t appear to require significant levels of public support to accomplish its bloody work. Indicators of al Qaeda’s support elsewhere are even more disturbing. Its popularity among Nigerian Muslims was just under 50 percent — a striking finding for a country that has witnessed the growth of Boko Haram.
Before we write al Qaeda’s epitaph, it would be wise to understand what the available facts tell us — and what they don’t. After all, al Qaeda’s popularity is frequently less important than that of insurgent groups to which it is attached. That is exactly al Qaeda’s objective: to establish a symbiotic relationship with local groups that have more support and legitimacy. In Afghanistan, for example, a Taliban overthrow of President Hamid Karzai’s government would be an enormous victory for al Qaeda, which would almost certainly re-establish a sanctuary in the country.
Seth G. Jones goes on to point out that the Arab Spring has not been a negative for al-Qaeda.
Zawahiri’s original goals were regional- the overthrow of the Egyptian government. The Arab Spring accomplished what Zawahiri and his EIJ could not. Part of the anger that fuels the jihadi movement in various countries is the belief that their misery is due to corrupt, dictatorial governments that are too secular; their belief is that becoming more Islamic would solve the dysfunctions of their countries. Islamists and radical fundamentalists are seeing the Arab Spring as an opportunity.
More from Greg Miller’s WaPo piece:
Under Zawahiri, a bespectacled physician from Egypt, al-Qaeda has made subtle strategic shifts. He is seen as less preoccupied than bin Laden with mounting large-scale attacks against the United States, instead emphasizing regional struggles at a time when that message is more likely to resonate with Muslims in the Middle East.
By necessity, Zawahiri has narrowed al-Qaeda’s short-term ambitions. Unable to point to a sequel to the Sept. 11 attacks, Zawahiri has sought to find victories in the course of world events.
In his taped messages, Zawahiri has depicted the pending U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, budget cuts for the Defense Department and even the Arab Spring as evidence of America’s “shrinking and retreat.”
“He’s trying to jump on the bandwagon,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution. Zawahiri has “gotten the endorsements of the entire global al-Qaeda empire,” Riedel said, but he presides over a core that has been “staggered and set back.”
As a result, U.S. counterterrorism officials are increasingly focused on a roster of regional affiliates. “Those groups, in total, will surpass the core al-Qaeda remaining in Pakistan,” Cardillo said.
Several have showed renewed strength over the past year.
The network’s once-dormant franchise in Iraq has carried out a string of deadly attacks across the country. It has also reversed smuggling routes that used to bring fighters and weapons in through Syria but are now being used to export violence to the uprising against that country’s president, Bashar al-Assad.
In North Africa, al-Qaeda’s franchise has made millions of dollars through kidnappings and other criminal enterprises, U.S. officials said, and is now using the money to stock up on weapons that have flowed out of Libya after dictator Moammar Gaddafi was overthrown.
Still, it is al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen that “we’re most worried about, the affiliate we spend the most time on,” said the senior U.S. counterterrorism official. “They’re operating in the midst of essentially an insurgency, a multi-polar struggle for the control of Yemen. And that allows them the opportunity to recruit, to fundraise, to plot.”
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, as the Yemen-based group is known, has fused itself with a regional insurgency that has seized large portions of the country’s southern provinces over the past year.
The United States has responded by escalating a covert campaign of airstrikes by the CIA and the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command. Earlier this month, Obama gave the agency and JSOC expanded authority to conduct strikes against targets that appear to be part of AQAP, even if the identities of those who could be killed is unknown.
AQAP is tied to the most recent major attacks on U.S. targets, including the mailing of parcels packed with explosives to addresses in Chicago in 2010, as well as the failed attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day in 2009.
AQAP has devoted more of its recent energies to regional ambitions — a shift that U.S. counterterrorism officials attribute to opportunism as well as bin Laden’s death.
“It doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned their global jihadist intentions,” the U.S. counterterrorism official said. “But they are more focused on their local situation partly so they can free up time and space, so that in the future they can take up the mantle again of the global jihad.”
Dates and anniversaries seem to be important to al-Qaeda. But
“At this time, we have no credible information that terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda, are plotting attacks in the U.S. to coincide with the anniversary of bin Laden’s death,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters.
“However, we assess that [al Qaeda]’s affiliates and allies remain intent on conducting attacks in the homeland, possibly to avenge the death of bin Laden, but not necessarily tied to the anniversary,”
Republicans are criticizing President Obama of politicizing the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, just as Democrats had done over President Bush and 9/11.
If we transition back to a Republican presidency, will the GWoT/OCO look much different? Not by much, I think. When it comes to national security, I believe there is a certain level of “continuity of government”, regardless of the “R” or the “D” in front of the “PotUS”. And where President Obama has gotten things right is where he’s perpetuated Bush-era policies in prosecuting the war against exported Islamic terror (In spite of what Senator and presidential candidate Obama campaigned upon).
The 2012 presidential Republican nominee should tread carefully that he doesn’t fall into the same trap as the ’08 Democratic candidate did. Matthew Waxman:
“The perception that the president is constrained by law is vital to the success of counterterrorism policies in courts and cooperation on counterterrorism issues with allies.” Along similar lines I’d like to emphasize a few points.
First, I agree with Jack’s caution that Romney should not press his perceived advantages too far, and I’d add another reason. If Romney wins, he’s going to find his operational flexibility already heavily constrained by a combination of politics, legal restrictions (including Guantanamo legislation passed by Congress during the Obama administration), diplomatic necessities, and other factors. He should be careful not to unnecessarily and prematurely paint himself into corners on how to handle, for example, captured al Qaida figures. As President Obama has learned, some pragmatic flexibility to choose among legal avenues is necessary to deal with the complexities of these cases. In particular, a Romney administration will also find (as the Bush Administration showed and many Obama critics from the right have forgotten) how valuable to an aggressive counterterrorism strategy the option of civilian criminal prosecutions can be in certain cases. John Bellinger and I emphasized these points in our critique of the most recent National Defense Authorization Act.
Second, Jack correctly implies that regardless of who wins the presidency in 2012, the counterterrorism policies and practices in the next term will look a lot like they do now. A second-term Obama administration will continue its approach of flexible pragmatism, having learned that operational and political constraints rule out radical reforms, but having shown that acknowledging and articulating legal limits strengthens counter-terrorism programs by making them less vulnerable to legal and political challenges and reducing friction with our allies.
Even if it wants to, a Republican administration will find it difficult to roll back Obama Administration reforms in the other direction, though, especially those that reflect legal lines drawn by the Justice Department in recent years. For example, as Jack notes, candidate Romney might want to draw distinctions from Obama by refusing to take waterboarding off the table. But even supposing there were operational intelligence advantage to doing so, at this point a President Romney would find it hard to put it back on the table, in the sense of actually getting the CIA or another agency to consider doing it.
Waterboarding (practiced on only 3 HVDs and ended not by President Obama but suspended under President Bush) is off the table, regardless of who wins presidential re-election or election.
So, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “wind down”…as we celebrate the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, as al-Qaeda proper ceases to exist as it once had…is the war on terror over? Has the global jihad movement lost its steam? Is it time to revert back to a law enforcement approach in dealing with international Islamic terrorism? After all, invading countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, and incursions into Pakistan, only seem to fuel anti-Americanism and recruitment for violent jihad.
Are we safer today? Have those who wish to war upon us ceased in their efforts?
It’s still a dangerous world. It’s still a new kind of war. We must maintain vigilance.
As far as I’m concerned….it’s still September 12, 2001.
A former fetus, the “wordsmith from nantucket” was born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1968. Adopted at birth, wordsmith grew up a military brat. He achieved his B.A. in English from the University of California, Los Angeles (graduating in the top 97% of his class), where he also competed rings for the UCLA mens gymnastics team. The events of 9/11 woke him from his political slumber and malaise. Currently a personal trainer and gymnastics coach.
The wordsmith has never been to Nantucket.