A widely-read report in The Washington Post last night says U.S. officials believe Al Qaeda is on the "brink of collapse" and that a "small number of additional blows could effectively extinguish the Pakistan-based organization." The terrorist network's near-defeat is attributed to CIA drone strikes in Pakistan killing 1,200 militants since 2004 and strikes on Al Qaeda-affiliated groups such as the Haqqani network and the Pakistani Taliban, as well as the killing of Osama bin Laden. It's a comforting notion that the group that carried out 9/11 is on its last legs. But is it true? For starters, the article's thesis is undercut by a series of caveats and stipulations embedded in the article itself. For instance:
- Al Qaeda in Yemen "U.S. officials said that al-Qaeda might yet rally and that even its demise would not end the terrorist threat, which is increasingly driven by radicalized individuals as well as aggressive affiliates," reports The Post. "Indeed, officials said that al-Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen is now seen as a greater counterterrorism challenge than the organization’s traditional base." Punctuating the point, Senator Saxby Chambliss, the ranking member of the Senate intelligence committee tells the newspaper. “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is nowhere near defeat.”
- The threat of splinter groups A senior U.S. counterterrorism official differs with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's recent bullish remarks saying “I’m not sure I would have chosen ‘strategic defeat," cautioining that "even if al-Qaeda is dismantled, its militant ideology has spread and will remain a long-term threat."
Kudos to the The Post for plainly detailing the caveats. But those stipulations certainly make the headline "U.S. officials believe al-Qaeda on the brink of collapse" less convincing. And others have noted that the group doesn't appear to be down on its luck:
It smells like political spin, writes Andrew Malcolm at the Los Angeles Times:
A sense of military victory over al Qaeda could help bolster Obama's national security credentials next year, giving him a positive talking point that usually belongs to the GOP.
Al Qaeda can move beyond Pakistan, writes Alex Wilner at the National Post.
With al-Qaeda’s leadership pinned down in Afghanistan and Pakistan, opportunities in the Middle East and North Africa will give al-Qaeda’s affiliates a chance to raise their profiles. Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb, for instance, is especially well placed to take advantage of the mayhem in North Africa. It is rearming and may attempt to expand its influence into Libya. As for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), it recently captured territory in southern Yemen. Given its record of targeting the West — first in 2009 with underwear bomber Umar Abdulmutallab and then in 2010 with the cargo plane plot — AQAP will use its new haven to launch further attacks. And with an uptick of violence in Iraq, faltering NATO campaigns in Afghanistan and Libya, unravelling U.S.-Pakistan relations, and utter anarchy in Somalia, al-Qaeda’s local supporters will enjoy greater mobility.
The Al Qaeda threat has spread, says Matthew Olsen, recently-nominated director of the National Counterterrorism Center, in an interview with the Associated Press:
Olsen said the threat has spread and diversified beyond the senior Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan, to diffuse groups. The State Department said in a global travel warning yesterday that Al Qaeda and other groups are planning terrorist attacks against US interests in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. It warned that Americans should remain vigilant in case of attacks, in the form of suicide operations, assassinations, kidnappings, hijackings, and bombings.