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.

On the other end of the spectrum, some analysts, many of them working for the Obama administration, say we've got al-Qaeda on the run. National Journal reporter Michael Hirsch quoted a State Department official last week as saying "The war on terror is over," in part because the core elements of al-Qaeda -- its vast network and logistics trail for planning and launching attacks -- are essentially destroyed. It's true that the primary elements of al-Qaeda that attacked us on September 11 are gone, but it's not yet time to declare victory against the broader movement.

The last successful attack by Islamist terrorists on a Western country took place in 2005 in London. But that doesn't mean the threat is gone; rather, the threat has changed.

Probably the most difficult challenge facing the U.S. right now is not so much al-Qaeda itself but the growing number of insurgencies reaching out to al-Qaeda for legitimacy and support. These groups are spread across the Middle East and North Africa -- coincidentally, perhaps, along the periphery of the Arab Spring, in countries that did not experience a rapturous collapse of their tyrannical regimes. They confound easy attempts at labeling, too, since they combine elements of insurgencies, terrorist movements, local concerns (and local names -- al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and so on), and global allies.

Those local affiliate groups do not pose the same threat that al-Qaeda once did. Despite the danger and chaos al-Shabab can sow in Somalia, it is not blowing up embassies, punching holes in U.S. Navy vessels, or flying airplanes into American buildings. And even the most virulent, violent of these groups -- al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based group, seems to be the analysts' choice -- couldn't even manage to pull off a tiny underwear bomb that wouldn't have destroyed the airplane it was on anyway.

The many successes in the fight against al-Qaeda have also come with substantial costs. In Pakistan and Yemen, an obsession with kinetic activities -- killing the bad guys -- has worsened political chaos and entrenched anti-Americanism. Some other countries now deny the U.S. permission to fly drones over their territory because they fear the political backlash that Obama's favorite weapon could bring. We don't know yet if these political consequences can be overcome, though it's a safe bet that continuing the same terror policies won't lessen them.

The struggle isn't hopeless, but it does require some new thinking. I edited a collection of essays published this week, asking some new questions on how the conflict between violent Islamism and the rest of the world is progressing -- the writers identify some good things about the last ten years of policy but also try to see where we could be doing this better. This is not always an easy discussion, especially after over a decade of politicization of how and when and where and why we fight terrorism. But it is a discussion that we nevertheless very much need to have.