Al-Qaeda Is Winning

Their ability to land large-scale attacks like that of September 11 might be eroded, but the group has another strategy: using our strengths against us

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A decade after the attacks of September 11, 2001, national security opinion leaders are converging around the ideas that the threat of terrorism has been substantially reduced over the past 10 years, and that al-Qaeda is on its death bed. "Al-Qaeda is sort of on the ropes and taking a lot of shots to the body and the head," White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan told the Associated Press on August 31. Defense secretary Leon Panetta said in July that the United States is "within reach" of "strategically defeating" the jihadi group, and the Washington Post has confirmed that his assessment is shared by many analysts. Commentators in the public sphere are increasingly adopting similar views. But my own research into the group has led me in a different direction: that this emerging consensus doesn't just appear wrong, but obviously wrong. Al-Qaeda isn't anywhere near defeated -- for all our triumphalism, it appears to be winning.
It's not that we should fear al-Qaeda: fear tends to be a pointless, even counterproductive, emotional response to potential danger. And even if I am right, that doesn't mean we should expand our counterterrorism resources or even maintain their current levels. Overspending on homeland defense, as I argue in my recent book, has been one of our key errors over the post-September 11 decade. So insufficient spending isn't the problem, nor is the problem that we're not sufficiently worried about terrorism. Rather, if we're losing, it's because many analysts seem to massively misdiagnose the nature of al-Qaeda's threat, and because the policies that derive from that misunderstanding have made things worse.

J.M. Berger: Anwar al-Awlaki and the Hijackers
William McCants and William Rosenau: We've Won the War
Thanassis Cambanis : We Still Don't Get the Threat of Non-State Actors
William McCants: The Man Who Runs al-Qaeda

We aren't safer from terrorism than we were a decade ago. Safety, after all, is a product of our defensive capabilities and resiliency measured against an enemy's capacity to attack us. While al-Qaeda's capacity to attack us hasn't increased significantly, the United States has far weaker capabilities than it did 10 years ago: even if al Qaeda has experienced a decline in the past decade, then the U.S. has declined more steeply.

The U.S.'s economic woes are well known. We have an economy in shambles and a national debt of more than $14 trillion. If this continues, we won't be able to maintain our current security apparatus and our ability to project power -- both seriously expensive enterprises -- forever. A decade ago, American safety came in part from the fact that we had the capacity, if needed, to ramp up resources to devote to the problem. In the coming decade, fewer resources will be available to devote to counterterrorism and to other problems the country faces; just look at the political scuffle over finding federal money to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. In fact, if current concerns about U.S. creditworthiness snowball, the U.S. could come to have drastically fewer resources to deal with its challenges, foreseen and unforeseen.

It's not just the U.S. that's cost-cutting. Austerity is now a global phenomenon, with most developed countries trimming -- or severely slashing -- their intelligence and security budgets. Austerity can diminish capabilities as well as spread instability, as we saw in the riots in the UK and Greece.  The problem is compounded by resource scarcity -- prices are skyrocketing for everything from oil to rare metals to food -- further constraining the U.S. and its allies. Not only will we be more hard-pressed to prevent terrorism, but it will be more difficult to absorb another attack. Our resilience has eroded in multiple ways, from our weakened economy, which has increased joblessness and slashed personal savings, to the bitter partisan divide fraying American social cohesion. Of course, we can't blame everything on the fight against terrorism: al-Qaeda didn't trigger the sub-prime mortgage crisis, for example. But, regardless of how these problems started, they're good news for al-Qaeda's mission.

It might be conventional wisdom today that al-Qaeda has been severely weakened, but we've heard these kinds of claims before. In September 2003, President George W. Bush boasted that up to two-thirds of al-Qaeda's known leadership had been captured or killed, and that it had been deprived of its sanctuary in Afghanistan. In April 2006, the National Intelligence Estimate, which reflects the U.S. intelligence community's consensus, assessed that "the global jihadist movement is decentralized, lacks a coherent strategy, and is becoming more diffuse." The following month, Bush declared, "Absolutely, we're winning. Al-Qaeda is on the run."

Al-Qaeda had in fact been weakened by losing its Afghanistan sanctuary, and its leadership did experience attrition -- just as the group has certainly been weakened by Osama bin Laden's recent death and Younis al-Mauretani's capture. But are these temporary setbacks from which the group can recover, or permanent losses that will put al-Qaeda into a tailspin?

Bush and the U.S. intelligence community, it now seems, underestimated the group's resilience, to serious consequence. As the U.S. shifted resources away from Afghanistan-Pakistan and toward the Iraq theater between 2003 and 2006, due in part to the belief that victory had been attained over the group, al-Qaeda went about carving out a safe place for itself in Pakistan's tribal areas. By July 2007, official assessments of the group shifted radically. The new National Intelligence Estimate, released that month, concluded that al-Qaeda had "protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability."

There's little reason to think that the intelligence community's understanding of al-Qaeda has drastically improved to have a better perspective on the group's capacity to rebound.  Most analysts believed that bin Laden was in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and that he played merely a figurehead role in the organization -- both of which were disproven by the Abbottabad raid and the documents seized there.

The 9/11 Commission Report, which analyzed the factors that allow terrorist groups to execute catastrophic attacks, concluded that they require physical sanctuaries giving them "time, space, and ability to perform competent planning and staff work," as well as "opportunities and space to recruit, train, and select operatives." In September 2001, al-Qaeda enjoyed one such sanctuary in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Today, their affiliates enjoy four: in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and northern Mali. The affiliates in the Sinai and Nigeria have also been growing. And the disrupted but massive urban warfare plot targeting Europe in October 2010 shows that the group retains the capacity to organize large-scale attacks -- even if Western intelligence services are able to stop them in time.

Though they've failed to launch another large-scale attack, al-Qaeda's overarching strategy is working fairly well. Even before September 11, the group was focused on undermining its enemies' economies.  As bin Laden himself articulated in an October 2001 interview with Al Jazeera journalist Taysir Allouni, the strikes were intended to inflict economic as well as physical damage. Al-Qaeda has returned to this strategy since the collapse of the U.S. financial sector in September 2008, which once again made the country seem mortal. Jihadis adapted, focusing on what some members call the "strategy of a thousand cuts."

This strategy emphasizes smaller, more frequent attacks designed in part to drive up security costs for their targets. Al-Qaeda operatives have placed three bombs on passenger planes in the past 22 months: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's underpants bomb in December 2009, followed by two bombs hidden in ink cartridges that were placed on FedEx and United Parcel Service planes in October 2010. Abdulmutallab's detonator failed and the ink cartridge bombs were found before their timers were set to explode, but al-Qaeda might not view those incidents as failures. As radical Yemeni-American preacher Anwar al-Awlaki explained, the ink cartridge plot presented a dilemma for al-Qaeda's foes once the bombs were successfully placed on planes. "You either spend billions of dollars to inspect each and every package," he wrote, "or you do nothing and we keep trying."

Al-Qaeda has not been defeated over the past decade so much as it has been contained. As fewer resources are available to maintain this containment, the threat could rise as our capabilities for policing against terrorism and for absorbing major attacks could fall.

American planners, focused on beefing up security and on securing tactical victories over al-Qaeda, never really took the time to understand the group's overarching strategy, something that has made sound strategic decisions more difficult. If we understand our safety as our defensive capabilities and resiliency measured against an enemy's capacity to attack us - keeping in mind that attacks can be economic as well as physical -- it is hard to say that we've grown safer since September 11.

The only chance a relatively small and weak actor like al-Qaeda has to beat a strong actor like the U.S. is by turning its strength against it. The group has managed to put the U.S. in a position where many of its offensive and defensive measures -- armies deployed in far-away and hostile places, travel and commerce slowed by cumbersome security theater -- do in fact make the U.S. more vulnerable by exhausting it. That might not be an assault of the sort we experienced on September 11, but it is still, unfortunately, all too effective.