In the buildup to the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, a lot of speculation has emerged on the state of al Qaeda. Most narratives state that al Qaeda’s core, based in Pakistan and Afghanistan, has been defeated, and that its so-called loosely tied affiliates now wield most of the terror group’s strength. We addressed this issue back in late January, in an article for The Weekly Standard titled Strategic Retreat, and our view is contrary to the conventional wisdom. The article reflects our views on the status of al Qaeda today.
In “Strategic Retreat,” we argued that the Obama administration’s strategy of pulling back from Afghanistan and switching to a counterterrorism-heavy mission worldwide does not adequately deal with the fact that al Qaeda and its allies still hold ground in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, and North Africa.
We also stated that al Qaeda and the Taliban remain closely linked, and that conducting negotiations with the latter is a fool’s errand (something we’ve noted numerous other times as well at The Long War Journal; see here, for instance). The recent Guardian report that bin Laden, Zawahiri, and Mullah Omar conferred over strategy in Afghanistan merely proves our point.
Al Qaeda has no doubt suffered a setback with the deaths of bin Laden, Atiyah Abd al Rahman, Ilyas Kashmiri, and other leaders over the past year, but the terror group has suffered similar losses over the past decade and regrouped.
Checking off names of top leaders and operatives who have been killed or captured, and then proclaiming the group dead, is the wrong way to decide whether al Qaeda remains a threat. The Bush administration used this same methodology and was ridiculed in the press for doing so. And measuring al Qaeda’s strength or weakness solely by its ability to conduct attacks here in the US is another terrible way assess the status of al Qaeda. Using the same logic, al Qaeda posed no immediate threat to the US prior to Sept. 11, 2001. The reality is that al Qaeda is surviving and expanding into new territory. Al Qaeda is able to do so because its ideology has not been challenged effectively, and because the organization continues to enjoy safe havens and state support.