How Strong Is al Qaeda Today, Really?

A year after bin Laden's death, we still often talk about his group's successful or failure in somewhat exaggerated terms. The truth may in fact be somewhere in the middle.

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Footage of Osama bin Laden released by the U.S. government just after the attacks on September 11. Reuters

This week marks one year since Osama bin Laden's death. We're hearing a lot about what the anniversary means for the larger struggle against Islamist violence around the world. Most assessments of the "War on Terror" fall into one of two categories: al-Qaeda is stronger than ever or al-Qaeda is dead or dying. Whatever you think about al-Qaeda specifically, the global movement of violent Islamism is more complicated.

Analyst Seth Jones is leading the argument that al-Qaeda is doing better than we realize, that "the obituaries are premature" (Jones also has a book coming out soon taking a similar position). This argument is based in part on the idea that al-Qaeda's affiliates are part of the same larger collective as the and Pakistan-based group that Osama bin Laden helped lead. Mary Habeck says that al-Qaeda in Pakistan commands its subordinate groups in Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and the Sahel through "broad strategic guidance and resources as needed, but not specific daily orders with daily reportage back up the chain of command." This control is not perfect, she concedes, but the arguments rests on the assumption that the groups are so similar, and so interlinked, that they can all be accurately referred to as "al-Qaeda."

Of course, lots of groups take on the role of advisers and mentors. The U.S. is fond of using proxies in many wars -- the mujahidin who defeated the Soviet Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s, for example -- but we don't assume that "mujahidin" and "American forces" are analytically interchangeable. Their goals and interests aligned for a time and thus they joined forces; they did not, however, become the same force. The relationship between Pakistan-based al-Qaeda Central (AQC) and its many affiliates is similar: they came into being separately, and only later did they reach out to the central group in Pakistan for legitimacy and support.

Terrorism is not getting worse. According to data released by the National Counter Terrorism Center on worldwide terrorist attacks, current levels of violence, though high, are far below their peak in 2006. The most recent year for which the NCTC has data, 2011, shows only a moderate reduction in violence from 2010, but it is still a reduction in violence.

While AQAP in Yemen is gaining some territory (by essentially usurping the southern secessionist movement, which is itself an interesting political move), in Somalia the local al-Qaeda affiliate (which only became official two months ago) is actually losing territory. In Iraq, the al-Qaeda in Iraq group never held any to begin with. At this point, no one can say for certain whether the Sahel affiliates will be able to consolidate and control their very modest gains in Mali.

In November 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney articulated the one percent doctrine. "If there's a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It's not about our analysis," he said. "It's about our response." That idea is still informing our understanding of al-Qaeda's strength. "It only takes one attack to be successful," Jones warns in his piece.

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Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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