William Macle has a great long read up in Reuters about the direction al-Qaida may be heading in. I say ‘great’ because it conforms to my preconceived notions and allows me to say ‘Ah, ha! That’s what I’ve been saying for months now.’ Never underestimate my capability for self-congratulation.
In short, the article asserts that the success in decimating al-Qaida’s core leadership over the past year or so, coupled with ‘franchising’ the AQ brand to groups more focused on local conflicts has turned the organization into one that is less capable on the international field and less influential on the world’s stage. Involvement in local conflicts across the Middle East and Africa lead al-Qaida affiliates down the same dangerous path that al-Qaida in Iraq faced. Namely, involvement in conflict is most likely going to be brutal and endemic leading to a disaffected local population and retaliation. You may be able to assert control for awhile (like the Taliban did, AQAP is doing in parts of Yemen or al-Shabaab in parts of Somalia) but it’s unlikely we’re going to go back to the ‘glory days’ of pre-9/11. Neighbors aren’t going to want a destabilizing force so close and locals are going to be wary of the chances of living in a ‘live and let live regime’. These local affiliates are often their own worst PR enemy.
For what it’s worth, Peter Bergen seems to agree with me*:
– Al Qaeda hasn’t conducted a successful attack in the West since the bombings on London’s transportation system seven years ago that killed 52 commuters. And the terrorist group, of course, hasn’t carried out an attack in the States since 9/11.
– Even terrorists influenced by al Qaeda-like ideas have only killed 17 people in the United States since 9/11. About the same number of Americans are killed every year by dogs. In other words, in the United States during the past decade, dogs have been around ten times more deadly than jihadist terrorists.
– Polling data from across the Muslim world in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, and Turkey indicate that support for al Qaeda has plummeted.
– Al Qaeda played no role in the Arab Spring and hasn’t been able to exploit in any meaningful way the most significant development in the Middle East since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
On top of that, based on open source reporting of the latest underwear bomb plot indicates that not only are countermeasures getting better but that we may have finally gotten to the point that we’re actually inside the OODA loop of AQ and at least some of their affiliates.
I have to agree with his central thesis. If we’re not yet at the point where we can regulate AQ and some of its affiliates to ‘minor irritant’ we’re damn close.
The next question is what will the homeland security/counterterroism industrial complex going to turn its sights on in order to continue being fed?
Abu Muqawama riffs off that article hedging his bets a bit more:
It is undoubtable that at the very least, tactically and operationally (and many would argue strategically) that the U.S. has inflicted grievous blows on al Qaeda. But the persistent capability and possibility of al Qaeda’s thus-far unbroken will translating itself into coercive power make a political declaration a liability. Indeed, were an attack to occur after such a declaration, the response would likely severely undermine the wartime credibility of civilian leadership and inaugurate an even more costly and ambitious conception of retaliation and counterterrorism, which is particularly problematic since Bergen’s goal is to redirect resources away from the war on terror.
Despite the fact that al Qaeda’s operational capability to conduct attacks on the continental United States is undoubtedly weaker than during 9/11, it retains strategic options to imperil US interests. Al Qaeda retains the ability to expand the battlefield against the U.S. and threaten Western assets outside of American soil. Bergen argues that our extensive defense establishment is part of the logic behind declaring victory, but if the goal of declaring victory is to refocus assets from that establishment, and deploying overwhelmingly superior resources is our defense, the benefits of declaring victory remain slim and potentially counterproductive. Because the U.S. hasn’t decisively stemmed the growth of local affiliates – which can still kill U.S. citizens and personnel or target critical assets abroad – the potential remains for the al Qaeda threat, however operationally reduced, to exact politically significant costs.
I just don’t know how you break free from that trap. When do you get to the point when AQ (or anyone for that matter) can’t “kill U.S. citizens and personnel or target critical assets abroad”? I mean, that seems a pretty low bar to continue exerting a whole lot of effort. I’m not arguing that we ignore AQ completely but we’re fast approaching (or past) time to seriously consider a post-AQ world.
*That shouldn’t be interpreted in any way to imply that Peter Bergen even knows I exist.**
**That note shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that I’m particularly interested in Peter Bergen’s approval or dig his mojo.