The Diminishing Threat from Al Qaeda

Why do I get nervous when everyone sounds like Fareed Zakaria?

It is by now overwhelmingly clear that Al Qaeda and its philosophy are not the worldwide leviathan that they were once portrayed to be. Both have been losing support over the last seven years. The terrorist organization's ability to plan large-scale operations has crumbled, their funding streams are smaller and more closely tracked. Of course, small groups of people can still cause great havoc, but is this movement an "existential threat" to the United States or the Western world? No, because it is fundamentally weak. Al Qaeda and its ilk comprise a few thousand jihadists, with no country as a base, almost no territory and limited funds. Most crucially, they lack an ideology that has mass appeal. They are fighting not just America but the vast majority of the Muslim world. In fact, they are fighting modernity itself.

All of this makes perfect sense, of course. But at yesterday's Aspen panel on nuclear non-proliferation, the general consensus was that there's a reasonably high likelihood that a nuclear device will be detonated in an American city, New York or Washington most likely, at some point in the next ten years. And the experts on the panel, John Holdren and Joe Cirincione among them, are not exactly attached to the Bush Administration worldview. After such an attack, we'll look back -- those of us still around, obviously -- on our efforts to combat al Qaeda and judge them inadequate to the task, just as we look back now on the Clinton Administration's pre-9/11 preparations (and the Bush Administration's, as well) as thoroughly inadequate. So I suppose I'm convinced of two things simultaneously: Al Qaeda is fairly weak, and not very popular at all, and that this might not matter as much as people think.