The enigma of Al Qaeda. Even in death, these unanswered questions remain important
Al Qaeda is dead, at least as an organization (perhaps it lives at some level as an idea, brand name, or ideology). Unfortunately we still know neither what is was or how it died. The answers we choose will affect US defense policy for years or decades.
In December 2005 I asked a question:
- Is Al Qaeda a powerful stateless global conspiracy, like SPECTRE in Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories? Or COBRA in the GI Joe comics? A real world comparison would be useful here; unfortunately, there is none.
- Or is Al Qaeda like the 19thCentury anarchists, a small number of terrorists with delusions of grandeur?
Despite the millions of words burned in confident guessing, it’s clear that nobody on our side knows the answer to these questions.
Now Al Qeada has died, apparently just embers remain. As Prof Juan Cole explains in “On the Seventh Anniversary of September 11: Time to Declare the original al-Qaeda Defeated“:
The original al-Qaedais defeated. It is a dangerous thing for an analyst to say, because obviously radicalMuslim extremists may at some point set off some more bombs and then everyone will point fingers and say how wrong I was. So let me be very clear that I do not mean that radical Muslim extremism has ceased to exist or that there will never be another bombing at their hands.
I mean the original al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda as a historical, concrete movement centered on Usama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, with the mujahideen who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s at their core. Al-Qaeda, the 55th Brigade of the Army of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan under the Taliban. That al-Qaeda. The 5,000 fighters and operatives or whatever number they amounted to.
That “original” al-Qaeda has been defeated.
But my questions remain unswered.
What was Al Qaeda? Who defeated it?
1. Was it a powerful organization defeated by the coordinated and combined forces of western and allied police counter-intelligence forces?
2. What was the role of special operations forces doing “direct action” hits on Al Qaeda’s leaders? See this post by Patrick Lang (Colonel, US Army, retired), esp note the comments).
3. Did Al Qaeda defeat itself? How important were the many mistakes of strategy and execution made by Al Qaeda’s leaders? (See Cole’s article for more about this).
4. What was the potential magnitude of Al Qaeda’s threat? Perhaps Al Qaeda was never more than a brush fire which would have inevitably burned itself out — that it’s core world view was inherently of limited popularity among Muslims.
I have seen nothing but guesses on these things. Often quite confident guesses, but still speculation. Perhaps government experts have non-public information that answers these things, on the basis of which they will forge effective strategies and tactics for the future. History suggests otherwise.
Reassesing the threat
Are these statements still true (assuming they were ever correct)?
The United States is a nation engaged in what will be a long war. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, our Nation has fought a global war against violent extremists who use terrorism as their weapon of choice, and who seek to destroy our free way of life.
— Opening lines of DoD’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), “charting the way ahead for the next 20 years as it confronts current and future challenges and continues its transformation for the 21st century.” (February 2006)
United States-led counterterrorism efforts have seriously damaged the leadership of al-Qa’ida and disrupted its operations; however, we judge that al-Qa’ida will continue to pose the greatest threat to the Homeland and US interests abroad by a single terrorist organization. We also assess that the global jihadist movement – which includes al-Qa’ida, affiliated and independent terrorist groups, and emerging networks and cells – is spreading and adapting to counterterrorism efforts. … We assess that the global jihadist movement is decentralized, lacks a coherent global strategy, and is becoming more diffuse. New jihadist networks and cells, with anti-American agendas, are increasingly likely to emerge.
— Declassified “key judgments” of the National Intelligence Estimate “Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States” (April 2006)
Al-Qa’ida is and will remain the most serious terrorist threat to the Homeland, as its central leadership continues to plan high-impact plots, while pushing others in extremist Sunni communities to mimic its efforts and to supplement its capabilities. We assess the group has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability … We assess that the spread of radical-especially Salafi-Internet sites, increasingly aggressive anti-US rhetoric and actions, and the growing number of radical, self-generating cells in Western countries indicate that the radical and violent segment of the West’s Muslim population is expanding, including in the United States.
— Press Release about the National Intelligence Estimate titled “The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland” (17 July 2007)
The drive to establish friendly governments in the Middle East was largely driven by fears of a global Islamic terrorist threat. Without that, what is the justification for our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
After failing to convince Americans that China is a clear and present danger, admitting victory over Al Qaeda might leave re-igniting the Cold War as the last hope for survival of our massive defense apparatus. Perhaps DoDsenior leaders hold daily services praying for Putin’s continued good health. They have much at stake.
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Other posts about America’s National Security
- The Myth of Grand Strategy, 31 January 2006
- America’s Most Dangerous Enemy, 1 March 2006
- America takes another step towards the “Long War”, 24 July 2007
- One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy?, 28 October 2007
- America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past, 30 June 2008
- President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris, 1 July 2008
- America’s grand strategy, now in shambles, 2 July 2008
- America’s grand strategy, insanity at work, 7 July 2008
- Justifying the use of force, a key to success in 4GW, 8 July 2008
- A lesson in war-mongering: “Maritime Strategy in an Age of Blood and Belief”, 8 July 2008
- Geopolitical analysis need not be war-mongering, 9 July 2008
- The world seen through the lens of 4GW (this gives a clearer picture), 10 July 2008
- Thoughts on fixing America’s national security apparatus, 11 August 2008
Click here to see a list of all posts about strategy and military theory.