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
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.