The idea’s been floated before, mostly after U.S. Special Forces took out Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s spiritual and operational maximum leader on May 1. Before then, of course, it was a hope, a wish, a deeply held dream for two administrations and the people of the United States. Anyone who lived in New York City 10 years ago. Anyone who’s lived there since. Anyone with a son or daughter in the U.S. military. Anyone who’s subjected themselves to the virtual high-tech, strip-search kabuki that’s part of flying on any commercial aircraft anywhere in this country at any hour of the day or night.
But now, Greg Miller of The Washington Post reported Wednesday, thanks to the results of that successful raid in Pakistan, a prolonged drone strike campaign, and their impact on the organization’s leadership, “top U.S. national security officials now allude to a potential finish line in the fight” against the group that seared its name in the national lexicon, and the national conscience, on Sept. 11, 2011.
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“The assessment reflects a widespread view at the CIA and other agencies that a relatively small number of additional blows could effectively extinguish the Pakistan-based organization,” Miller reported Wednesday.
"I'm not sure I would have chosen 'strategic defeat,' " a senior U.S. counterterrorism official told The Post. "But if you mean that we have rendered them largely incapable of catastrophic attacks against the homeland, then I think Panetta is exactly right," the official said, speaking anonmously. "We are within reach of rendering them to that point."
It’s a mindset borne of cautious optimism and a readiness for surprise. And why not? How many times have you seen movies in which the villain (man or machine) has apparently been vanquished, and then, moments later — right when the good guys are high-fiving each other for a job well done — up jumps the devil. The beast they thought was finished mounts a comeback.
The senior U.S. counterterrorism official offered Miller of The Post that very sobering caveat. "Terrorist organizations, even more than enemy armies, are capable of reconstituting," s/he said. "The thing we absolutely don't want to do is hang out another 'Mission Accomplished' sign."
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For all his religious and cultural traditionalism, Osama bin Laden was a captive of 21st-century technology, just like the rest of us. He was an avid student of the video format, paid close attention to how he was perceived in the West, and watched videotapes of himself to assess his on-camera performance (maybe he was working on a presentation for a newscaster gig in case the whole terrorist thing didn’t work out).
The jihadist’s embrace of technology helped lead to the capture of what is, for all practical purposes, Osama bin Laden’s brain. As someone whose command of al-Qaeda was very hands-on (despite the analyses of those who thought he’d walked away from al-Qaeda’s day-to-day operations), bin Laden left a veritable owner’s manual of how al-Qaeda worked.
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That operational paralysis is made worse, ironically enough, by one of the very features that made al-Qaeda such a pregnant threat in the years since 9/11. The group’s loose org structure, the relative autonomy of al-Qaeda cells, required the glue of bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s founder and COO, to give it a collective identity. Now with bin Laden out of the picture, that identity’s been badly fragmented, its seeming invincibility a thing of the past. The al-Qaeda brand will never be the same.
And finally, al-Qaeda’s jihadist mission has been complicated by the unanticipated events in north Africa and the Middle East, as the citizens of Egypt, Libya, Syria and other countries in the region have undertaken grassroots uprisings against their governments, uprisings that continue to this day.