The attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco have set off another round of hand-wringing by people who seemingly can’t stand the thought that the U.S. might be winning the war against al Qaeda. What is not clearly understood, even by some supporters of the Bush administration’s efforts, is that the most recent bombings — like the bombing in Bali several months ago — are signs of al Qaeda’s weakness, not its strength.
Before the Bali bombing several months ago, Indonesia — the largest Islamic country in the world — was aggressively hostile to the idea that al Qaeda, or any other group of Muslim extremists, was a threat. After Bali, Indonesia has been aggressive in rounding up Islamic extremists, depriving them of what had been yet another base for planning and training. Similarly, although the future actions of Saudi Arabia are still uncertain, it appears at the moment that the Saudi monarchy is now under unaccustomed internal pressure to change its policy in support of Wahhabism and other forms of Islamic extremism, both in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Islamic world.
At first glance, it appears irrational that al Qaeda should focus its attacks in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia — in effect fouling its own nest and forfeiting support in places where it has always had either tacit or active assistance from the government or substantial portions of the population. But in fact, these attacks are necessary to the survival of the organization. It must continue to make news and generate publicity, or it will be perceived as a defeated force by the Arab youth on whom it relies for recruitment and cannon fodder. Al Qaeda’s leaders know that the ever-credulous Western press will treat each bombing as a renewal of its vigor, when in fact these bombings signal just the opposite.
If we look at the targets chosen in each of these cases, what they have in common is both their defenselessness — their “softness” in the current jargon — and their failure to damage the power or image of the United States. If al Qaeda were truly resurgent, and had both the leadership and resourcefulness evidenced by its initial attacks on U.S. embassies, warships, and the World Trade Center, there is no doubt the organization would be attacking targets of this quality. But the fact is that these targets are now largely out of reach — in part because the United States and the rest of the civilized world have increased the quality their defenses but also because, as President Bush has said, the organization is on the run.
One theory is that these attacks were undertaken by freelancers-al Qaeda cells that are acting without central direction or without any overriding strategy. That would certainly account for their apparent self-destructiveness by choosing targets in countries where they have bases or at least government tolerance. But if this is true, it only further emphasizes that the organization’s leadership is unable to exert overall strategic control, or perhaps even communicate with its operatives.
Today, the United States is again on high alert for a terrorist strike. There may well be one, but the likelihood is that it will be one of the millions of soft targets that could not be adequately defended against a terrorist act. Thus, when we turn on our television sets in the months to come, and find that al Qaeda has attacked a school in Afghanistan, a church in Spain, or even a shopping mall in the United States, we should not see this as some kind of spectacular resurgence of the al Qaeda threat but as the final throes of a dying snake.
— Peter Wallison was White House counsel to President Reagan. He is the author of Ronald Reagan: The Power of Conviction and the Success of His Presidency.