Sunday, July 31, 2011

Al-Qaeda: Future imperfect

It’s formed so much of our national narrative, our basic world view, in this country and the world for so long, it’s hard to imagine life without its foundational presence, the threat created by its existence. So it was a surprise to see the recent headlines linking “al-Qaeda” with the phrase “brink of collapse.”

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.

Miller quotes the newly-minted Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who said "we're within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda" in a July 9 surprise visit to Kabul, Afghanistan. There was thinking that Panetta may have overreached in an assessment believed to be meant more to buck up the troops still doing the fighting than to provide a realistic analysis.

"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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Of all the powerful revelations in the wake of the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, maybe none was important, as dramatic, as the disclosure that the killing of bin Laden also yielded tha treasure trove of information on the organization’s plans, information found in hard drives, tapes and writings.

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’s certainly one reason why the U.S. intelligence officials’ overview is so generally upbeat. Simply put, what remains of al-Qaeda is stymied by the fact that, with the capture of that information in May, we know what the various autonomous units of al-Qaeda don’t know. And they don’t know what we know; they’re working without a map, operating without the overall vision and scope that was bin Laden’s, and his alone.

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.

“Democracy is bad news for terrorists,” said Paul R. Pillar, a Middle East scholar and former CIA terrorism analyst, to The New York Times in February. “The more peaceful channels people have to express grievances and pursue their goals, the less likely they are to turn to violence.”

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There’s always the possibility that al-Qaeda could reconstitute itself, reform around another committed, charismatic leader. To that end, there’s been some pushback against any premature obituaries for the group.

At a conference in Aspen on Thursday, Michael E. Leiter, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, dismissed the idea of al-Qaida’s irrelevance. “[T]he core organization is still there and could launch some attacks,” Leiter told The Times’ David Sanger at the Aspen Security Forum at the Aspen Institute.

Seth G. Jones, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation at the same forum, echoed Leiter’s assessment. “Central Al-Qaeda and a mix of other groups in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia are capable of pulling off an attack in the U.S. homeland,” he told The Times.

The Post’s Miller reported that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), an offshoot of the core organization, is entrenched in Yemen and “has emerged as the most dangerous of those affiliates” of Al-Qaeda central. "Indeed, officials said that al-Qaeda's offshoot in Yemen is now seen as a greater counterterrorism challenge than the organization's traditional base," Miller reported.

Six weeks before the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, there’s reason for hope that the architects of the global terrorism we’ve lived with for so long may have attained irrelevance through concerted action by the United States and the painfully organic drive for democracy underway throughout Africa and the Middle East.

But the devil is truly in the details. Any celebrations of al-Qaeda’s sunset necessarily confront warnings, from people in a position to know, that reports of its demise may be dangerously exaggerated.

Image credits: Osama bin Laden: From video released by the Pentagon. David Petraeus and Leon Panetta: Paul Richards/Reuters (pool). Protester in Libya: Amr Abdallah/Reuters. Michael Leiter: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

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