Brian Michael Jenkins, a veteran terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, recently published a book called Unconquerable Nation: Knowing Our Enemy, Strengthening Ourselves. It includes a fictional briefing, in Osama bin Laden’s mountain stronghold, by an al-Qaeda strategist assigned to sum up the state of world jihad five years after the 9/11 attacks. “Any al-Qaeda briefer would have to acknowledge that the past five years have been difficult,” Jenkins says. His fictional briefer summarizes for bin Laden what happened after 9/11: “The Taliban were dispersed, and al-Qaeda’s training camps in Afghanistan were dismantled.” Al-Qaeda operatives by the thousands have been arrested, detained, or killed. So have many members of the crucial al-Qaeda leadership circle around bin Laden and his chief strategist, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Moreover, Jenkins’s briefer warns, it has become harder for the remaining al-Qaeda leaders to carry out the organization’s most basic functions: “Because of increased intelligence efforts by the United States and its allies, transactions of any type—communications, travel, money transfers—have become more dangerous for the jihadists. Training and operations have been decentralized, raising the risk of fragmentation and loss of unity. Jihadists everywhere face the threat of capture or martyrdom.”
Michael Scheuer was chief of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit from 1995 to 1999 and was a special adviser to it for three years after 9/11 (the CIA disbanded the unit this summer). In a similar mock situation report that Scheuer has presented at military conferences, a fictional briefer tells his superiors in al-Qaeda: “We must always keep in focus the huge downside of this war. We are, put simply, being hunted and attacked by the most powerful nation in the history of the world. And despite the heavy personnel losses we have suffered, may God accept them as martyrs, the United States has not yet made the full destructiveness of its power felt.”
Any assessment of the world five years after 9/11 begins with the damage inflicted on “Al-Qaeda Central"—the organization led by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri that, from the late 1990s onward, both inspired and organized the worldwide anti-American campaign. “Their command structure is gone, their Afghan sanctuary is gone, their ability to move around and hold meetings is gone, their financial and communications networks have been hit hard,” says Seth Stodder, a former official in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Kilcullen says, “The al-Qaeda that existed in 2001 simply no longer exists. In 2001 it was a relatively centralized organization, with a planning hub, a propaganda hub, a leadership team, all within a narrow geographic area. All that is gone, because we destroyed it.” Where bin Laden’s central leadership team could once wire money around the world using normal bank networks, it now must rely on couriers with vests full of cash. (I heard this point frequently in interviews, weeks before the controversial news stories revealing that the U.S. government had in fact been tracking international bank transfers. Everyone I spoke with assumed that some sort of tracking was firmly in place—and that the commanders of al-Qaeda had changed their behavior in a way that showed they were aware of it as well.) Where bin Laden’s network could once use satellite phones and the Internet for communication, it now has to avoid most forms of electronic communication, which leave an electronic trail back to the user. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri now send information out through videotapes and via operatives in Internet chat rooms. “The Internet is all well and good, but it’s not like meeting face to face or conducting training,” says Peter Bergen, author of The Osama bin Laden I Know. “Their reliance on it is a sign of their weakness.”
Scheuer, Richard Clarke (the former White House terrorism adviser), and others have long complained that following the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, in 2000, the United States should have been prepared to launch a retaliatory raid on Afghanistan immediately after any successor attack—“the next day!” Scheuer told me—rather than taking several weeks to strike, and that it might well have chased down and eliminated bin Laden and al-Zawahiri if it had concentrated on them throughout 2002 rather than being distracted into Iraq. Nonetheless, most experts agree that the combination of routing the Taliban, taking away training camps, policing the financial networks, killing many al-Qaeda lieutenants, and maintaining electronic and aerial surveillance has put bin Laden and al-Zawahiri in a situation in which they can survive and inspire but not do much more.
“Al-Qaeda has taken some very hard blows,” Martin van Creveld, a military historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of The Transformation of War and other books, told me. “Osama bin Laden is almost irrelevant, from an operational point of view. This is one reason why he has to keep releasing videos.”
Does this matter, given bin Laden’s elevation to Che Guevara–like symbolic status and his ability to sneak out no fewer than twenty-four recorded messages between 9/11 and the summer of this year? “For bin Laden, it’s clearly a consolation prize to become a ‘philosophy’ rather than an organization,” says Caleb Carr, a history professor at Bard College and the author of The Lessons of Terror. “They already were a global philosophy, but they used to have a command structure too. It’s like the difference between Marxism and Leninism, and they’re back to just being Marx.” Marc Sageman, author of Understanding Terror Networks, says that before 9/11, people attracted to the terrorist cause could come to Afghanistan for camaraderie, indoctrination, and specific operational training. “Now you can’t find al-Qaeda, so it’s difficult to join them,” he told me. “People have to figure out what to do on their own.”
The shift from a coherent Al-Qaeda Central to a global proliferation of “self-starter” terrorist groups—those inspired by bin Laden’s movement but not coordinated by it—has obviously not eliminated the danger of attacks. In different ways, the bombings in Madrid in 2004, in Bali and London in 2005, and in Iraq throughout the past three years all illustrate the menace—and, in the view of many people I spoke with, prefigure the threats—that could arise in the United States. But the shift to these successor groups has made it significantly harder for terrorists of any provenance to achieve what all of them would like: a “second 9/11,” a large-scale attack on the U.S. mainland that would kill hundreds or thousands of people and terrorize hundreds of millions.