The idea that al-Qaeda is on the brink of collapse has taken hold. On Wednesday, the Washington Post noted that “U.S. counterterrorism officials are increasingly convinced that the killing of Osama bin Laden and the toll of seven years of CIA drone strikes have pushed al-Qaeda to the brink of collapse.” Indeed, the Post reports that the view is “widespread” in the CIA and other agencies that “a relatively small number of additional blows could effectively extinguish the Pakistan-based organization.” This comes on the heels of defense secretary Leon Panetta’s declaring in early July that the U.S. is “within reach” of “strategically defeating” al-Qaeda if it kills or captures ten or 20 of its remaining leaders. But if there’s one thing the past ten years of the fight against jihadi groups has taught us, it is: Don’t believe the hype.
Though there are few things I would like to see more than al-Qaeda’s final and definitive collapse as a strategic threat, there is good reason for skepticism. 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, and our analytic corps should be more cautious in assessing it than these hubristic public statements suggest.
President Bush claimed in September 2003 that al-Qaeda was on the ropes. As Time reported, he told the nation that up to two-thirds of the group’s known leadership was captured or killed; the same Time story said that “its training camps in Afghanistan have been destroyed and the relentless worldwide campaign [against it] has denied it new sanctuaries.” In April 2006, the consensus of the intelligence community was that al-Qaeda had in fact been defeated as an organization. The National Intelligence Estimate released that month said that “the global jihadist movement is decentralized, lacks a coherent strategy, and is becoming more diffuse.” The following month, President Bush shared this cheery assessment, saying, “Absolutely, we’re winning. Al-Qaeda is on the run.”
Things did not turn out the way President Bush and the intelligence community envisioned. By July 2007, the intelligence community’s assessment had shifted radically. The National Intelligence Estimate released that month concluded that al-Qaeda “has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability.”
Obviously, the fact that the intelligence community has been wrong on this matter before does not mean that it will always be wrong. But it raises the question whether, due to gaps in the information at their disposal, intelligence analysts have underestimated this opponent’s resiliency. So are there signs that the U.S.’s understanding of al-Qaeda has improved?
Sadly, the most recent data points suggest that the U.S.’s understanding of al-Qaeda remains limited. The intelligence community had for years believed that Osama bin Laden could be found in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas — and not in Abbottabad, where he was actually located. Moreover, the dominant view in the intelligence community was that bin Laden had been only a figurehead in al-Qaeda, whereas the early reports of the information unearthed in the Abbottabad raid suggest that he was in fact far more involved in running the network than analysts believed. (There has been pushback against these findings by way of selective leaks to the media, but I am quite skeptical of the claims that bin Laden wasn’t actually running al-Qaeda at the time of his death.)