So, is al Qaeda still defeated?

Eight months ago, Thomas Joscelyn and I debated CNN‘s Peter Bergen and Thomas Lynch, a National Defense University Researcher Fellow and former Special Assistant to Admiral Mike Mullen when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, on the state of al Qaeda. They argued that al Qaeda has been defeated as it was incapable of striking on US soil and we merely are facing local Salafist groups disconnected from al Qaeda. We of course argued that they are wrong, that al Qaeda has always used local insurgencies to expand its power base, and that the group has only spread in the Muslim world after 9/11.

Since the time of the debate, al Qaeda has taken over (and then lost) northern Mali, formed a powerful affiliate in Syria, reignited the insurgency in Iraq, made significant inroads in the Egyptian Sinai and North Africa, and forced the US to close more than 20 diplomatic facilities across the Muslim world.

Thomas was quoted extensively at The Jerusalem Post on this very issue over the weekend. Here is an excerpt from the report:

Joscelyn, a terrorism analyst specializing in al-Qaida and a senior editor of The Long War Journal as well as a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told The Jerusalem Post in an interview on Sunday said that many people in the US have been trying to argue that al-Qaida is dead, but this news demonstrates that this was not a correct assessment.

Recent reports indicate that the intelligence that led to the warning was above the level of general chatter and that it coincides with the naming of a new al-Qaida general manager.

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, according to a report by CNN on Saturday, appointed Nasir al Wuhayshi, the Yemeni leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), for the role. Consequently, Wuhayshi rose to number two in the terrorist organization, a position held by Libyan Abu Yahya al Libi before his death in a drone strike in Pakistan in June 2012.

The report states that the move could be meant to help the organization remain focused in the Arab world and raise funds from Gulf States. Wuhayshi previously was Bin Laden’s private secretary during the latter’s time in Afghanistan, fleeing to Iran, where he was arrested and sent to Yemen in 2003.

Joscelyn says that this position is incredibly important because it “manages infrastructure and affiliates.” It could be that “this plot is tied to his appointment as a big coming out party,” he said.

“The Arab Spring was said to be the death knell for al-Qaida, but this idea was false all along,” he said adding, “just look at Syria, which has one of the most thriving al-Qaida affiliates on the planet – more fighters are there now than have been in any one location in a long time.”

Just because al-Qaida was not behind the revolutions does not mean that al-Qaida is not smart and does not know how to take advantage of them, he added.

Some in the US sought to differentiate between the core jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan and their affiliates in various countries, argues Joscelyn noting that it is true that each affiliate has its own unique history and development, but these “are not local nationalist movements that are disconnected from the global threat.”

He goes on to assert that many of these al-Qaida affiliates threaten the West though it may not be their primary motive at this point as they are primarily trying to seize territory. But this is not less worrisome, he says.

Asked how effective US president Barack Obama’s drone strikes are, he responds that it has been effective at taking out select commanders and dealing with immediate threats, but it is a tactic, not a strategy.

From Israel’s perspective al-Qaida and its affiliates are gaining a greater presence than they probably have ever had on Israel’s borders, he says. Look at what is happening in Sinai, Gaza, Syria, and al-Qaida logistical operations run out of Lebanon and Jordan and you see an organization that is far from dead, concludes Joscelyn.

Readers of The Long War Journal will know that we have consistently argued that reports of al Qaeda’s demise have been premature, and that its relationship with its affiliates and allies is a strength of the organization. For the best take on our view of al Qaeda, read Thomas’s testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, on al Qaeda, the nature of the group’s central command and its relationship with its affiliates, and the future challenges the West faces in battling the terror organization.

We like to think that the Bergen/Lynch view of al Qaeda has been thoroughly been discredited at this point, but will let you be the judge.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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15 Comments

  • Arjuna says:

    You neglected to mention Phil Mudd at NAF, who was declaring strategic victory along with Bergen and who now seems to be backtracking big time in his opinions. Hopefully the nameless intel analysts who see the daily threat streams are more realistic than the journalists and Al Qaeda “experts.” Big thanks to everyone at LWJ for keeping your eyes on the ball and not engaging in wishful thinking or posturing for a particular point of view. This is a serious enemy on a serious roll. We need a new strategy and new CT thinking. Peter King is this you?

  • ArneFufkin says:

    While 20 American foreign embassies were shuttered this weekend – and the National Security Council was in emergency meeting because of an imminent and perilous al-Qaeda threat – the Commander in Chief was golfing with college buddies. At least this time, unlike the Benghazi attack, aides actually knew and confirmed the whereabouts of this President. Hard to figure why we are losing ground in the fight against existential Islamic encroachment.

  • mike merlo says:

    how quaint President Obama is Lord Auckland, General Elphinstone, & Sir Macnaghten all rolled into one. Undoubtedly one of the poorest, if not the poorest(Carter?), exhibitions Presidential Statesmanship since WWII.
    Neville Chamberlain’s ghost is certainly salivating at the prospect of having soon to be relieved of the mantle as modern history’s preeminent appeaser. As of late Putin is the only Western Leader showing backbone & backing ‘it’ up.

  • Dean Klovens says:

    I don’t believe al-Qaeda in its name will be defeated; it’ll continue growing its tentacles regardless who is targeted via the drone. By the way,the surveillance programs that the newest traitor, Ed Snowden, had revealed were quite significant tools in idying the leadership in AQ divulging or planning attacks on US diplomatic interests in the Middle East and N. Africa. While AQ will not truly be defeated, the means and methods of intelligence may be paying off.

  • Matt says:

    I read an article by Peter on CNN.com which I attempted to argue against with a link to Long War Journal. CNN did not allow the link to be posted however true to form I suppose.
    I find it almost terrifying that Peter Bergen whom Usama personally conveyed his infamous Declaration of War personally, has the arrogance to look the facts straight in the eye and does not see the truth. In my humble opinion, Peter Bergen may be personally responsible for Usama perceiving the US as being so arrogant we are not able to see what is in front of our face as Usama stated. Then CNN doesn’t even allow the facts by denying the link. No wonder we are still at this a decade later…
    Thank God for the Long War Journal. Maybe someday the dimwits will read it!
    My comment is 3rd down from the top…
    //www.cnn.com/2013/07/16/opinion/bergen-jihad-status

  • Celtiberian says:

    Far from defeated. AlQaeda affliated thugs are close to attain big gains in Syria. Today they have seized the main syrian airbase in the north (Minagh) and they are pushing a strategic offensive in Latakia province, by the Mediterranean sea after overruning and “cleaning” key alawi and christian villages.
    I cannot understand why the US does not reach some kind of deal with Syrian govrnmnt. A jihadist caliphate in Syria (in the border with Israel, in the shores of the Mediterranean, with oil wells, advanced anti-air weapons, chemical weapons depots…) is the bigger threat to international security right now.
    Seriously, what is the plan?

  • Ken North says:

    The Long War Journal and Bill and Thomas have been unerringly consistent – arguably prophetic – in their rejection of the conventional wisdom that AQ and/or AQAM are down for the count.
    Syria is a compelling case in point and I strongly suspect that the Sinai may yet prove to be an even more illuminating illustration of AQ’s resilience. If you think engagement in Tora Bora was bad, good luck in the Halal range.
    I would gently submit that the apparent demise of AQIM and affiliates in Mali probably only represents a temporary withdrawal. It is difficult to believe that the proposed 12,000 + UN forces [MINUSMA] will be able to effectively confront the seasoned fighters who rather adeptly eluded the French forces in pursuit.
    Al Shabaab, FARC, Abu Sayyaf, Shining Path and other groups have been prematurely written off in the past as AQ was recently. But they have an amazing ability to go dormant, reconstitute, and eventually resurge with a vengeance.
    I’m not entirely satisfied that the Tamil Tigers are genuinely out of play. Or Ilyas Kashmiri . . . .

  • vyom says:

    The problem with most people is that they go after a particular name. Be it Al Qaeda and it’s affiliates, Taliban, Haqqanis, LeT, Abu Sayyaf or whatever. They are not different or at least their goals are some or what similar. People say Taliban has regional aspirations for sharia but they ignore the fact that in their eyes all these Mujhahids are good guys and they will shelter them (by the way there is no reason to believe that Taliban will not attack). If you allow them to kill all the jews, they will do that then they will come for others Indians, Europeans, Americans. If you allow them kill all these people then they will start killing all those muslims who do not agree with them. So to consider that AQ is defeated without removing Taliban or others then that would be mistake (a serious one). It is the extremist ideology that must be removed.

  • mike merlo says:

    @vyom
    with all due respect from what I’ve managed to learn over the last few decades it would appear that AQ types, Salafist’s, & ‘camp’ followers have been pretty busy murdering & massacring their fellow Muslims with routine regularity.
    While identifying & singling out ideology is a seriously critical priority killing these people is the only way to “remove” it.

  • JRP says:

    Pakistan continues to be the 800 pound problem in the room. If there was any doubt as to Zawahiri’s whereabouts, the recent alert seems to remove all doubt that he’s ensconced in Pakistan. Pakistani authorities and the so-called “good Taliban” know where he is and they are protecting him. The United States is hog-tied for fear that if we cut off financial support to Pakistan, Pakistan will retaliate by permitting Al Qaeda to get its hands on Pakistani nuclear weapons for use against the West. Again . . . The solution to the terror threat against the whole Western World lies with dealing with Pakistan and ending Pakistani protection of AQ and Taliban once and for all.

  • M.H says:

    Al-Qaeda is not defeated at all.
    They are taking advantage of the huge vacuum created by the arab-spring and the failed states to organize their structures and prepare for the future.
    Appointing Nasir Al-Whuyashi the expert in explosives as the second in charge is a good indication of a future escalation in operations.
    Al-Qaeda now control more assets in terms of weapons, geography, trained elements, training camps, financial sources than before.
    I am so surprise to see Thomas Lynch minimizing the concept role of Bay`ah(oath of allegiance) by AQ affiliates. This an important statement so similar to the importance of Shahada, those groups when they declare Bay`ah, they use a deep allegiance first to the leader and then to the organization.
    I think both Peter Begen and Thomas Lynch are not noticing a shift of AQ from a centralized group to a more decentralized organization looking into adapting itself to a more diverse, complicated and a large area to manage. In adapting it self, AQ is becoming more dangerous than before.

  • . says:

    The core of al Qaeda is still in business. Look at AQ’s subsidiaries in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. What is going on in the Egyptian Sinai?

  • Nic says:

    Lara Logan’s address to the BGA on the subject of al Qaeda and terrorism. See is informed and easy on the eyes. She speaks bluntly beginning with dropping the “F” bomb.



    Title: 2012 BGA Annual Luncheon: Lara Logan

  • OldTown2012 says:

    Do we have a strategy for the Middle East? Other than occasional assassination of those Al Qaeda operatives we can find?
    Our last attempt at strategy was a disaster: imposition of ‘democracy’ throughout the region, beginning with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the subsequent democratization of Syria as an obvious next step, with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the theocratic regime in Iran.
    So what are our strategic goals, besides the beauty pageant response of “World Peace”? And what tactics will help us achieve those goals?

  • Matt says:

    Al-Qaida has always inflated their numeric strenght from the paid up extras masked gunmen to in videos in Afghanistan. To how the run affiliates core non core. You say the Taliban are al-Qaida that is some serious numbers same goes for the Sunni tribes in Iraq. Al-Qaida fundamentally are small cells that rely on indigenous insurgents to do the fighting loosely connected via logistics, finance, weapons vague general commands, target occupiers etc. Al-Qaida core quickly decamp the AO as was the case in Afghanistan once they draw in their target leaving smaller non core cells largely made up of indigenous insurgents to box on, in Afghanistan around 80 to 100 al-Qaida operatives in country.

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis