The terror group is still dangerous, even if its ability to attack the United States has diminished.
The attacks of September 11, 2001 were proof that foreign terrorists are capable of committing spectacular acts of mass murder on American soil. Even eleven years later, this certainty is present in any discussion of the terrorist threat, even if it only manifests itself at the subconscious level: the nightmare scenario could happen here, because it did happen here. And the intervening years suggest that it could happen here again, in some form or another: Umar Faroud Abumutallab came within moments of blowing up a U.S.-bound passenger jet in late 2009; Faisal Shahzad was one highly-perceptive souvenir vendor away from setting off a car bomb in Times Square in May of 2010.
But according to an al Qaeda expert and a retired U.S. colonel, it is time to disaggregate nightmare from reality, as least as far as the organization's offensive capabilities are concerned.
"I feel like a Sovietolgist in 1989," said Peter Bergen, a scholar and journalist who has written four books on al Qaeda, arguing the affirmative side in a debate over whether al Qaeda has been defeated at the New America Foundation. "And that's a good thing."
Thomas Lynch, a retired colonel who was once one of the army's highest-ranking counter-terror experts, said that al Qaeda can no longer inflict "catastrophic, globally-oriented terror." After a decade on the run, the loss of its safe haven and state sponsor in Afghanistan, the capture or killing of practically all of its senior leadership -- and, crucially, the group's declining reputation among Muslims resentful of the group's rhetoric and its tactics -- "al Qaeda central" is a husk of its former self.
But to others it is premature to declare al Qaeda "defeated" when Africa and the Middle East are pockmarked with affiliates and off-shoots that claim some kind of direct link or ideological affinity with the mother ship.
Al Qaeda's network "is still killing and wounding thousands and thousands of people each year," said Thomas Joscelyn, a national security expert and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. And they're doing it in a vast range of places.
There's Ansar Dine, the militant organization that quickly assumed control of Mali's northern half after the country's military coup in March. There's Boko Haram, which has pulled off a rash of horrific sectarian and anti-government attacks in northern Nigeria. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is present throughout North Africa; Ansar al Sharia, a possibly-related organization, was responsible for the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Al Shabaab once controlled much of Somalia and is dangerous even in defeat; al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, meanwhile, has exploited the power vacuum left in the wake of Yemen's ongoing turmoil. Jihadis are fighting under the al Qaeda banner in Syria, and there are enough of them to make the Obama administration reticent about committing arms and resources to the effort to oust Bashar al-Assad. Even if al Qaeda has lost much of its ability to strike western targets, its constituent organizations are capable of moving the regional and international agenda. As debater Bill Roggio of Long War Journal put it, al Qaeda has shifted from a hierarchy to more of a network model -- in other words, the group has adapted and survived in spite of the setbacks it's faced. "They may be at a low point," Roggio said, "but that doesn't mean they're defeated."
Yet what if the franchise model, even with all the violence it continues to cause, has hit its ceiling? "The affiliates are largely a record of failure," said Bergen, who listed the al Qaeda spin-offs' string of recent setbacks. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) once ruled a third of a populous and strategically important Arab country; the group is still adding to its body count, but that's all it's currently doing -- AQI's base of local support, as well as any territorial control, evaporated years ago. Lynch pointed out that in the documents recovered from Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, the terrorist leader fretted over the erosion of al Qaeda's brand appeal after the full extent of AQI's carnage became known throughout the Muslim world. Al Shabaab, which once controlled an equally vital stretch of real estate at the mouth of the Red Sea, has also lost nearly all of the land it once inhabited. And Libyans burned Ansar al Sharia's Benghazi outpost to the ground shortly after U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens' assassination.
The limits of al Qaeda-inspired jihadism are being exposed in other theaters, too. With the international community moving forward with plans for a military intervention in northern Mali, it is possible that Ansar Dine's strict, Taliban-like rule might soon be coming to a close. Ansar Dine are practitioners of a violent, foreign ideology in a region with almost no recent history of Salafi fundamentalism. The organization's bloody falling out with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, its erstwhile and decidedly more secular ally, only further alienated the terrorist group from the civilians living under its rule. The presence of foreign troops -- or even U.S. drones -- might be enough to quickly oust a group with no apparent political program other than territorial suzerainty and the imposition of an oppressive and alien form of Sharia law. The recent experiences of Somalia and Iraq (or of Afghanistan in 2002, arguably) suggest that a militant Islamist reign of terror attracts the wrong kind of regional and international attention, and commands little in the way of long-term, popular appeal.
Of course, ousting al Qaeda in Iraq required a dramatic and fortuitously-timed shift in American strategy; the victory over al Shabaab in Somalia was only possible because of a dizzying array of foreign military interventions and a decade-long state-building effort overseen by several international stakeholders. Dislodging the would-be Islamist overlords of the world's countless and seemingly-ungovernable security vacuums tends to be a long and violent process, and it's one that is still ongoing. Al Qaeda and its sympathizers endure, and they have the ability to inflict misery on an appalling scale. But for the time being, they do it far away from the United States -- and in a way that might guarantee the group's eventual extinction.