Al-Qaeda At 20... ... Dead or Alive?
Two decades after al-Qaeda was founded in the Pakistani border city of Peshawar by Osama bin Laden and a handful of veterans of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the group is more famous and feared than ever. But its grand project -- to transform the Muslim world into a militant Islamist caliphate -- has been, by any measure, a resounding failure.
In large part, that's because bin Laden's strategy for arriving at this Promised Land is a fantasy. Al-Qaeda's leader prides himself on being a big-think strategist, but for all his brains, leadership skills and charisma, he has fastened on an overall strategy that is self-defeating.
Bin Laden's main goal is to bring about regime change in the Middle East and to replace the governments in Cairo and Riyadh with Taliban-style theocracies. He believes that the way to accomplish this is to attack the "far enemy" (the United States), then watch as the supposedly impious, U.S.-backed Muslim regimes he calls the "near enemy" crumble.
This might have worked if the United States had turned out to be a paper tiger that could sustain only a few blows from al-Qaeda. But it didn't. Bin Laden's analysis showed no understanding of the vital interests -- oil, Israel and regional stability -- that undergird U.S. engagement in the Middle East, let alone the intensity of American outrage that would follow the first direct attack on the continental United States since the British burned the White House in 1814.
In fact, bin Laden's plan resulted in the direct opposite of a U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East. The United States now occupies Iraq, and NATO soldiers patrol the streets of Kandahar, the old de facto capital of bin Laden's Taliban allies. Relations between the United States and most authoritarian Arab regimes, meanwhile, are stronger than ever, based on their shared goal of defeating violent Islamists out for American blood and the regimes' power.
For most leaders, such a complete strategic failure would require a rethinking. Not for bin Laden. He could have formulated a new policy after U.S. forces toppled the Taliban in the winter of 2001, having al-Qaeda and its allies directly attack the sclerotic near-enemy regimes; he could have told his followers that, in strictly practical terms, provoking the world's only superpower would clearly interfere with al-Qaeda's goal of establishing Taliban-style rule from Indonesia to Morocco.
Instead, bin Laden continues to conceive of the United States as his main foe, as he has explained in audio- and videotapes that he has released since 2001. At the same time, al-Qaeda has fatally undermined its claim to be the true representative of all Muslims by killing thousands of them since Sept. 11, 2001. These two strategic blunders are the key reasons why bin Laden and his group will ultimately lose. But don't expect that defeat anytime soon. For now, al-Qaeda continues to gather strength, both as a terrorist/insurgent organization based along the Afghan-Pakistani border and as an ongoing model for violent Islamists around the globe.
So how strong -- or weak -- is al-Qaeda at 20? Earlier this year, a furious debate erupted in Washington between two influential counterterrorism analysts. On one side is a former CIA case officer, Marc Sageman, who says that the threat from al-Qaeda's core organization is largely over and warns that future attacks will come from the foot soldiers of a "leaderless jihad" -- self-starting, homegrown radicals with no formal connection to bin Laden's cadre. On the other side of the debate stands Georgetown University professor Bruce Hoffman, who warns that al-Qaeda is on the march, not on the run.
This debate is hardly academic. If the global jihad has in fact become a leaderless one, terrorism will cease to be a top-tier U.S. national security problem and become a manageable, second-order threat, as it was for most of the 20th century. Leaderless organizations can't mount spectacular operations such as 9/11, which required years of planning and training. On the other hand, if al-Qaeda Central is as strong as Hoffman thinks it is, the United States will have to organize its policies in the Middle East, South Asia and at home around that threat for decades.
Sageman's view of the jihadist threat as local and leaderless is largely shared by key counterterrorism officials in Europe, who told me that they can't find any evidence of al-Qaeda operations in their countries. Baltasar Garzon, a judge who has investigated terrorist groups in Spain for the past decade, says that while bin Laden remains "a fundamental reference point for the al-Qaeda movement," he doesn't see any of the organization's fingerprints in his recent inquiries.
But this view is not shared by top counterterrorism officials in the United Kingdom and the United States. A 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate concluded that al-Qaeda was growing more dangerous, not less.
Why the starkly differing views? Largely because U.S. and British officials are contending with an alarming new phenomenon, the deadly nexus developing between some militant British Muslims and al-Qaeda's new headquarters in Pakistan's lawless borderlands. The lesson of the July 2005 London subway bombings, the foiled 2006 scheme to bring down transatlantic jetliners and several other unnerving plots uncovered in the United Kingdom is that the bottom-up radicalization described by Sageman becomes really lethal only when the homegrown wannabes manage to make contact with the group that so worries Hoffman, al-Qaeda Central in Pakistan.