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.)
Further, other recent evidence suggests that we continue to underestimate the strength of al-Qaeda and its affiliates. During the chaos that has gripped Yemen this year, for example, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was able to “seize control over swaths of hundreds of kilometers from Lodar city of Yemen’s southern Abyan province to southeast Shabwa province’s city of Rodhom.” Tribal chieftains told Xinhua that AQAP had established checkpoints as well as military camps in that area. This is not meant to suggest that al-Qaeda will hold this territory for a significant length of time. But the fact that the group was able to make such territorial gains suggests that previous estimates of the group’s military power in Yemen did not capture its full strength.
In the past, overestimating our own gains and underestimating our foe has not been costless. When America was preparing to undertake its invasion of Iraq, the perception existed at high levels that the war in Afghanistan had already been won — a view that proved to be tragically wrong.
Dick Cheney, speaking at the Air National Guard Senior Leadership Conference in December 2002, described the Afghanistan war as “America’s most dramatic victory in the war against terrorism” and claimed that “the Taliban regime and the al-Qaeda terrorists have met the fate that they chose for themselves.” As a result of this flawed perception, significant military and intelligence assets were diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq. Robert Grenier, a former director of the CIA’s counterintelligence center, has noted that from late 2002 to early 2003, “the best experienced, most qualified people who we had been using in Afghanistan shifted over to Iraq,” including counterterrorism specialists and special forces.
Moving military assets out of the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater not only harmed coalition efforts in Afghanistan, but also helped to enable al-Qaeda’s regeneration. “If we hadn’t gone into Iraq, we wouldn’t have so gleefully subcontracted the struggle in Pakistan to [Pakistani president] Pervez Musharraf,” Bruce Hoffman, the director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University and one of America’s most distinguished scholars of terrorism, told me in an interview earlier this year. “We gave it to him and walked away. This was also the time when all of a sudden bin Laden went from being public enemy number one to ‘he doesn’t run things, he’s just a symbol.’ It was a complete 180, and all of it breathed new life into al-Qaeda, giving al-Qaeda the breathing space that it needed.”
Al-Qaeda used this breathing space to undertake a number of steps designed to bolster its foothold in Pakistan’s tribal areas. (Even though Western intelligence services mistakenly believed that bin Laden remained in the tribal areas long after he had left, a fact that became obvious after his death, al-Qaeda’s regeneration began there.) Among other things, the jihadi group took advantage of the hospitality offered under the Pashtunwali tribal code, engaged in intermarriage with local women, developed a sound understanding of Pakistan’s tribal politics, and exploited the anti-U.S. backlash in the country.
Despite this, the U.S.’s intelligence agencies continued to believe that the group had been beaten until several terrorist plots — including the successful July 7, 2005, public-transit attacks in London and the plot to destroy several transatlantic flights that was disrupted in August 2006 — forced them to rethink their assumptions.
Moving forward, a big part of actually beating al-Qaeda will involve not repeating the U.S.’s past mistakes. And while it is always difficult to determine the accuracy of intelligence assessments when the facts underlying them have not been made public, there is reason to be concerned that the new proclamations that al-Qaeda is on its deathbed in fact represent the repetition of past errors.
— Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and the author of Bin Laden’s Legacy (Wiley, 2011).