Al-Qaeda on the Ropes?

Al-Qaeda on the Ropes?

The Washington Post reported last week that US counter-terrorism officials

…are increasingly convinced that the killing of Osama bin Laden and the toll of seven years of CIA drone strikes have pushed al­Qaeda to the brink of collapse. The assessment reflects a widespread view at the CIA and other agencies that a relatively small number of additional blows could effectively extinguish the Pakistan-based organization that carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks…

While this is certainly very good news if true, it’s also important that such a claim not be misunderstood or over-dramatised. A number of counter-terrorism experts have offered some important reservations and caveats in the aftermath of the story.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and the author of Bin Laden’s Legacy (Wiley, 2011), notes that “there is good reason for skepticism” about the accuracy of such a forecasts:

This includes a history of triumphalist statements from government officials concerning al-Qaeda’s imminent collapse, and evidence suggesting that the U.S.’s intelligence on the group is more limited than many would like to admit. Underestimating al-Qaeda’s resilience has proven costly in the past…

Gartenstein-Ross goes on to offer some concrete historical examples.

Meanwhile, Max Boot, a foreign policy and security expert at the US Council on Foreign Relations, adds that “we should remember ‘Islamist terrorism’ does not necessarily mean ‘al-Qaeda.'” He notes:

… numerous other radicals are setting off bombs with scant direction or assistance from al-Qaeda Central. These organizations range from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Qaeda in Iraq to the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Haqqani Network, Hezbollah, Kataib Hezbollah and Hamas. None of these groups has pulled off an attack on the scale of 9/11, thank goodness, but several of them have undoubtedly killed far more people – and dominated far more territory – than al-Qaeda Central ever did.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq managed to take over a substantial portion of Sunni territory in Iraq before suffering devastating defeats in 2007-2008, but it continues to set off bombs. Hamas has taken over the Gaza Strip. Hezbollah is the most powerful force in Lebanon. The Pakistani Taliban are steadily undermining the government in Islamabad. Lashkar-e-Taiba has almost sparked war between India and Pakistan with its terrorist attacks in India…

In short, whatever the fate of al-Qaeda, the Islamist terrorist threat-of both the Shia and Sunni variety-remains very much with us. The only mistake worse than writing off al-Qaeda prematurely is to conflate its possible demise with the demise of the violent ideology it represents.

Tzvi Fleischer