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Al Qaeda is Back?
Let's go to the videotape.


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Periodically I give a seminar as part of a government course for counterterrorism analysts. The general topic for that segment is assessing the War on Terrorism, and I am billed as “The Optimist.” The organizers tell me they like to bring me in because I am provocative. That has always surprised me, because I never thought telling people they are doing a good job keeping the enemy at bay was particularly controversial. But you’d be surprised, as I am time and again, at the level of skepticism I run into. It is the same point of view reflected in the piece in Monday’s New York Times, based on intelligence-community sources, that says Al Qaeda is reconstituting. Their command and control is robust. They are running training camps. They are on the way back. Seems like five years into the war and we have nothing to show for it.

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One frequently hears similar views in the debate over the war. So long as Osama bin Laden is alive, he is winning. The sanctuaries in North Waziristan are an Afghanistan redux. The Taliban are resurgent and on the verge of victory. The U.S. is bogged down, its resources stretched thin. They suckered us into the region, and now everything is going according to al Qaeda’s plan.

Part of the problem is that we attribute preternatural qualities to the terrorists while establishing standards for our own success that are unattainable. For example, the notion that anything at all is going according to al Qaeda’s plan is nonsense. Bin Laden laid out the strategic goals of the organization in his 1996 Declaration of War. What would winning look like in their framework? Osama bin Laden the most popular leader in the Muslim world, revered by all, leading an increasingly united nation of true believers. Attacks on U.S. and Coalition military installations and warships throughout the region, sometimes resulting in major losses, leading to a comprehensive retreat from the Middle East. Regimes in the region suffering internal revolts, riots, a breakdown of the internal security apparatus, mutinies among their troops, assassinations of key leaders, and eventually armies of mujahedeen seizing control of the capitals and pledging allegiance to bin Laden’s growing empire. A united Palestinian movement, religious in orientation and loyal to the al Qaeda program, waging a war to the death on an increasingly beleaguered and strategically isolated Israel. Incessant, occasionally dramatic attacks in the West and especially in the United States, showing the puissance of the movement and its ability to inflict damage on the U.S. at times and places of their choosing.

Is this the war we are fighting? Not even close. The U.S. is more involved in the region than ever before. No regimes in the region have been overthrown by al Qaeda or its minions, or are even close to being taken over. Israel is not about to be destroyed. And al Qaeda is finding that exporting the revolution is not as easy as they expected. They have lost their primary state sponsor, lost the initiative, lost their ability to make attacks of strategic significance, and their leaders are hunkered down in safe houses afraid to be seen in public and wondering day by day who around them might betray them. So by their own standards, what have they achieved?

Take the simplest metric, the ability of the enemy to attack the United States. We are told that al Qaeda presents an “existential threat” to America, and certainly the enemy talks a great deal about destroying us, but at some point they have to demonstrate their capacity to inflict harm. 9/11 was impressive, but what has the enemy done lately? Doesn’t that fact that they have not been able to wreak havoc or even inconvenience since then prove the effectiveness of our measures against them? Ah, the critique goes, they are biding their time. They are long-term strategic thinkers. They are dedicated to a generations-long struggle that will not be resolved in their lifetimes. And so forth. But anyone who doesn’t think that when bin Laden talks about the caliphate he isn’t imagining himself as the revered caliph doesn’t understand the psychology of the charismatic mass movement leader. The terrorists aren’t biding their time before attacking the U.S., they want to attack us right now. They are doing the very best they can do; it just isn’t very effective.

As for attacks abroad, the enemy can commit them, from time to time. But do they add up to anything? Most have the same strategic impact as 9/11 — creating implacable enemies. These terror attacks do not destabilize societies, do not create cowed populations in fear of the next act of violence, do not send crowds into the streets chanting pro-al Qaeda slogans. Rather they demonstrate to the people in the target countries that they are not safe from the enemies of civilization, and they had better take strong action to defend themselves. This is true even in Spain, which is cited as an example of a terrorist success because of the proximity of the 2004 Madrid bombings to the defeat of the pro-U.S. government in elections days later. The Spanish government has been resolute in tracking down al Qaeda members inside the country, and has cooperated in international efforts against terror networks. So apart from killing people, how have enemy actions abroad benefited them?

Since 9/11 the Coalition has done a great deal of damage to the global terrorist network, its funding operations, personnel structure, leadership, command and control, and ability to commit violence. Al Qaeda and other organizations still exist, but at much diminished capacity. Some say mere existence is enough — so long as they are surviving they are winning. They are complex and adaptive, and we cannot cope. But again, this sets the bar much too high, and is not an effects-based measure. Bin Laden and his cronies did not get into the terrorist game to remain terrorists forever. Terrorism is the tool of the weak who seek to use violence to express their grievances against the status quo. But in order to actually achieve the power they seek they must eventually escalate to guerilla conflict and conventional war. So said Mao. A revolutionary organization whose leaders cannot show their faces in public and in fact have not been seen for the last five years cannot be said to be successfully prosecuting the struggle.

The conclusion that the enemy has reconstituted part of its command and control network and recruitment and training infrastructure seems to be derived from information gathered in the wake of the most recent terrorist takedowns in Britain. (The fact that these attacks were broken up before they could be executed strikes me as another indicant of success on our part.) It may well be that some small scale camps have been established — nothing like those in Taliban Afghanistan surely — but this is as much opportunity as threat. If al Qaeda is coalescing, it is easier to target. If there are camps, they can be surveiled. If there are training programs, they can be infiltrated. Al Qaeda’s leaders should understand that these are not the 1990s. Unlike then, everything they do will be watched. Unlike then, we are not afraid to take strong action instantly when opportunities arise. If we can lull them into a false sense of security, allow them to reconstitute to the point where they feel comfortable enough to operate in the open, so much the better. If they get confident, they will make mistakes. And they have a lot to be confident about. I’m certain the enemy is convinced we are a weak, failing power with neither the will or capacity to continue to prosecute the war effectively. At least that’s what they read in the papers.

 – James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.



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