'Defeated' al Qaeda Experiencing a 'Renaissance'

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."

Mary Habeck, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University, reached a similar conclusion, writing for FP's Shadow Government blog in April 2012:

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.



Protest Tourism Comes to Cairo

In the long litany of complaints against the Muslim Brotherhood's ill-fated time in power, the group's inability to revive Egypt's once-prospering tourism industry ranks high. Now, a group of Egyptian youths are trying to succeed where the Brotherhood failed.

A group calling itself Rabaa Tour is trying to attract tourists to the most unlikely of places in Cairo: the central battleground between security forces and Muslim Brotherhood members. For weeks, Brothers and their supporters have been occupying the area around Rabaa al-Adaweya mosque, and Egyptian officials have repeatedly threatened to clear the sit-in. With tens of thousands of people camped out there, any effort to sweep away the protesters, who are clamoring for the re-instatement of ousted President Mohamed Morsy, will surely result in bloodshed. But this is where Rabaa Tour would like you -- yes you -- to come visit in order to learn the truth about the protesters. They even have a slogan: "Heard enough? Time to see!"

Here's their promotional video:

This, of course, is not your typical tourism effort, and the campaign is notable in its effort to upset the stereotypes at play in the current Egyptian conflict. Though they don't come out and say it, the young people in the video are Morsy supporters or, at the very least, opponents of Egypt's military coup. That puts them on the Islamist side of the faultline that matters most in Egyptian politics today. But with lack of beards and flawless English, they don't fit the stereotype of the Islamist in the Western imagination -- if such a person even exists at all.

These kids are also doing outreach in a way the Brotherhood never quite understood. Having operated underground during the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood came to power with a rigid hierarchy and an abiding respect for its leaders. That made the organization remarkably bad at democratic politics. So it should come as no surprise that the Brotherhood never even attempted to pitch itself to Western audiences as something other than a scary Islamist body.

The Rabaa Tour seems to understand that. "Our goal is not to convince people to join us or to adopt our objectives," the group writes on their Facebook page. "It's just for people to know the truth and to respect our right of having a peaceful sit-in without being attacked!" With the military regime branding them terrorists and with the likelihood of further violence in Cairo all but certain, the plea by these young people to be considered on their own terms is a powerful one.

Whether it will attract tourists -- foreign or domestic, virtual or real -- is another question.

Photo by Ed Giles/Getty Images