From all that appears, America is safer today than it was 12 years ago because we now understand that al Qaeda and other such outfits are dedicated to killing us, and we have taken precautions. But have we significantly reduced the ability of al Qaeda to continue waging war against us?
The answer appears to be: no.
There are two ways in which we might eliminate or substantially reduce al Qaeda’s capacity to attack us. First, we might “decimate” al Qaeda, as President Obama claims we have done. Second, we might put Qaeda sufficiently “on the run” (to quote Obama again) that, although it survives, its fighters are too preoccupied with mere survival to plan attacks against us.
A brand new report from the American Enterprise Institute argues, persuasively I think, that, Obama’s campaign claims notwithstanding, we have achieved neither goal. To be sure, we have succeeded against al Qaeda groups in Pakistan (stay tuned, though, until after the “drawdown of our forces in Afghanistan is complete). But al Qaeda, having fundamentally shifted its approach, has become a global network. As such, it is arguably stronger than it was in 2001 and certainly is more resilient.
Despite the pounding it has taken, al Qaeda, unlike the U.S., is not “war weary.”
The report, written by Katherine Zimmerman, is called The al Qaeda Network: A New Framework for Defining the Enemy. Here, with minor editing and emphasis added, is its conclusion:
American efforts against the core al Qaeda group now based in Pakistan have been successful. That group has been unable to plan and carry out another terrorist attack on the scale of September 11. It cannot operate out in the open the way that it did in Afghanistan, and the leadership has been severely degraded.
This success required a significant investment of U.S. military assets and attention, which will not be sustained in that theater and is unlikely to be duplicated elsewhere. The special case success against al Qaeda in Pakistan, supported also by a massive American military infrastructure as part of the war in Afghanistan, may be reversed after the 2014 drawdown from Afghanistan.
It is likely that when pressure is relieved on the group in Pakistan, the leadership will regenerate, as has occurred in such areas as Iraq. Moreover, it is not clear that the al Qaeda leadership will choose to remain in Pakistan should Afghanistan once again become a viable sanctuary for the group.
Pressure on the group in Pakistan has not prevented al Qaeda from consolidating its strength in such areas as Yemen, Iraq, and the Sahel region, where it was already present, and deaths of senior leaders in Pakistan have not reduced the affiliates’ strength or changed the conviction in al Qaeda’s global jihad ideology held by their leaders. Despite the commitment of American assets to countering the threat from al Qaeda, the groups within the network have continued to seek to attack the United States, and the senior leadership in Pakistan has offered advice to affiliates on how to pursue that goal.
Understanding the relationships that run between the affiliates and the core al Qaeda group, as well as the relationships with associated groups, more fully develops a picture of the entire network and how that network can be mobilized to support attacks on Americans.
Associated groups in Pakistan currently support al Qaeda core’s operations there. Al Qaeda associates elsewhere offer the same benefits to affiliated al Qaeda groups. Recognizing the role that these local groups play is important in crafting a strategy that works to counter the threat from the entire al Qaeda network, not just the most active or senior node.
[This] does not necessarily lead to a conclusion that the United States must deploy forces or invest heavily in every place where the al Qaeda network is active. It does, however, require that American policymakers and decision makers begin to undertake what will be a substantial effort to develop a global strategy, tailored to the local groups, to counter the entire al Qaeda network.
Al Qaeda will continue to threaten the United States and its interests until the network is fully dismantled. It is not sufficient to destroy the capabilities of only one node in the network; time has proven that others groups will rise to the occasion and attempt to attack the United States. . . .
Al Qaeda will adapt, as it has before, and will continue to seek to fulfill its objectives. Understanding this, and fully understanding the al Qaeda network does more than provide the framework within which to craft a strategy to defeat al Qaeda. It also reveals the extent of the threat facing the United States today.