Think fast: Is al Qaeda defeated? Is it stronger than ever? Or is it both?
Not sure? You're in good company. Terrorism analysts can't decide either, and the threat of an attack by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has shuttered U.S. and Western embassies across the Middle East and South Asia in recent days, has re-started a debate about the state of the infamous terrorist network. The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that, "While al Qaeda's central leadership may be weakened, the rest of the group has morphed into smaller entities and dispersed, which has made the threat harder to predict and track," while the Telegraph described al Qaeda as "currently experiencing something of a renaissance" after prison breaks in Iraq and Pakistan. The latest threat that has shuttered embassies "is a wake-up call," Rep. Peter King said on ABC's This Week on Sunday. "Al Qaeda is, in many ways, stronger than it was before 9/11 because it's mutated and spread in different directions."
The Obama administration has been persistent in its claim that the defeat of al Qaeda is "within reach." Just last October, Peter Bergen, the director of the New America Foundation's National Security Studies Program and editor of the AfPak Channel, commented that he "feel[s] like a Sovietologist in 1989, and that's a good feeling." In his CNN column, he's consistently held that al Qaeda is defeated -- including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which Bergen described last month as "struggling to survive." Will McCants, a research analyst at CNA, noted in a response to an appraisal of al Qaeda's strength that even in the weak states where it has the strongest physical presence -- Yemen, Mali, and Somalia -- the network's hold on territory is tenuous at best, and al Qaeda affiliates in each country are either on the run or have been forced into hiding over the past year and a half.
But other experts and politicians argue that reports of al Qaeda's demise are greatly exaggerated. The relentless campaign of drone strikes in Yemen "may have lulled us into thinking the threat from that group had passed," Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown, told the Wall Street Journal this week. Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, the vice chairman of the 9/11 commission, testified to similar effect in 2011. "Al-Qaeda Central has been diminished," he told the Homeland Security Committee. "Although a devastating 9/11-type attack we believe is less likely, the threat is more complex and diverse than at any time in the last decade."
Is al Qaeda better off now than it was ten years ago? If we just look at attacks on the U.S., its citizens, and even its allies, we will agree with the current majority view of al Qaeda and answer ‘no'....
We will, however, draw quite a different conclusion if we look at how al Qaeda is faring in the rest of the world. On September 11, al Qaeda controlled perhaps a half-dozen camps in one safe-haven (Afghanistan) and had a few tentative alliances with other jihadist groups that had mostly local concerns. Today al Qaeda has multiple safe-havens (in northern Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, the Sahel); controls branches in many countries that share al Qaeda's global aspirations; holds territory through shadow governments that force local Muslims to follow al Qaeda's version of sharia; and is waging open war on numerous battlefields (Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Mali, etc.). Most tellingly, it is involved -- sometimes weakly, at other times in strength -- in every Muslim-majority country in the world.
Based on these facts, any net assessment of al Qaeda would conclude that, despite its failure to carry out a mass-casualty attack on the U.S. since 9-11, the group is in far better condition on a global scale than at any time in its history.
A large part of the debate -- as both Habeck and McCants pointed out -- is a matter of definitions. How closely affiliated with the al Qaeda of 2001 does an organization have to be to merit the name? Certain organizations, like AQAP, have adopted the al Qaeda global model explicitly, while others, like al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram, have adopted the al Qaeda name or affiliation while staying focused on local matters. At what point is al Qaeda 'defeated'? When U.S. intelligence thwarts attacks against the United States with such regularity as to render the organization impotent on an international scale, or only when al Qaeda as an entity has been killed off completely?
The New York Times reported on Monday that the threat leading to the embassy closures came in the form of a message, passed from al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan to AQAP operatives, to initiate a planned attack. AQAP has aggressively threatened the United States this year, as well as the Yemeni government and France (for its involvement in Mali). Though the threat remains just that -- a threat -- the closures suggest that the U.S. government doesn't think that al Qaeda is defeated. And clearly, al Qaeda can still inflict a toll on Western governments just by making threats, prompting potentially unnecessary closures if the threats prove empty. As for the state of al Qaeda, the jury's still out.
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images