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
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.