Is Al Qaeda "in ruins" or "far from defeated"? On the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death, it's impossible to say. That's because for every article hailing the end of the terrorist network, there's another saying Al Qaeda is as deadly as ever. So as a service on the one-year mark, we offer a guide to the "decline," or, err, the "resurgence," or, um, de-surgence of the post-bin Laden Al Qaeda. We've placed these reports on a spectrum from Reassured Ruination to Calamitous Comeback.
Pop the champaign! In the world of these journalists and terror experts, America's chief foe is dying, if not completely dead. "A year after bin Laden slain, Al-Qaeda 'in ruins'" reads the headline of the AFP's report from Michel Moutot. Moutot surveys a handful of experts who say the network is practically finished. "The death of their figurehead and US drone attacks in the Pakistani highlands have disrupted Al-Qaeda's core guerrilla organisation, now reduced to a few dozen militants battling for their own survival, experts say." In that same vein, terror experts tell The Los Angeles Times' Ken Dilanian Al Qaeda is "essentially gone" and CNN's Fareed Zakaria hedged even less declaring "Al Qaeda Is Over." The take away in these articles is that killing bin Laden delivered a death blow to recruitment efforts by Al Qaeda and subsequent drone strikes have narrowed the ranks to the terror network beyond repair. But wait, not everyone agrees!
Down But Not Out
This middling category holds that Al Qaeda is weakened but it's not dead yet, typified by pieces by reporters like Kimberly Dozier at the Associated Press: "A year after the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida is hobbled and hunted," she writes. "But the terrorist network dreams still of payback, and U.S. counterterrorist officials warn that, in time, its offshoots may deliver." U.S. officials tell Saudi newspaper Al Arabiya "Al-Qaeda 'essentially gone' but affiliates remain a threat." Terrorism expert Will McCants writes in Foreign Policy that Al Qaeda is nation-building. "Should we worry. Yes. But not as much as you might think."
It's Too Early to Say
This is the most cautious category, which posits that "things have happened" to Al Qaeda but we don't know enough to say whether it will mean the end of the organization. For this genre, read a piece like The Globe and Mail's Paul Koring with the headline "It's too early to consider al-Qaeda a dwindling force." Koring writes: "The violent fringes of radical Islam seem to have lost traction among even disenfranchised and repressed Muslims. At the same time, political Islam is emerging as a key force in the change sweeping aside repressive regimes in the Middle East."
Lastly, the most ominous category typified by reports like USA Today's Jim Michaels. "Year after bin Laden's death: Al-Qaeda 'far from defeated,'" reads the headline. Experts like Reuel Marc Gerecht tell him that bin Laden's death doesn't "fundamentally affect the future of jihadist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was a successful spawning." Other articles, like Seth Jones's piece in The Wall Street Journal make the same point: "al Qaeda is pushing into the vacuum and riding a resurgent wave as its affiliates engage in a violent campaign of attacks across the Middle East and North Africa." And then there are even scarier examples, found by ShortFormBlog like "Al Qaeda planning another Sept. 11-style attack."
In sum, for every journalist who can find three experts willing to speak about the death of Al Qaeda, there's another journalist who can find three more experts who say it's still a deadly force. Until this rule of three sorts itself out we'll continue to be confused.