America remains in the crosshairs. The point of contention amongst analysts is whether al-Qaeda’s current capabilities necessitate greater concern. In ascertaining the nature of such a risk it is important to understand the changing dynamic of this lethal adversary. The decentralized structure of today’s al-Qaeda is far different than the hierarchical organization that launched the devastating terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001.
Although al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden had been driven out of Afghanistan and into the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan in December 2001, the threat remained. Bin Laden took the time to construct a solid ideological foundation upon which to expand al-Qaeda by attracting a spectrum of regional militant Islamic groups and ‘franchised’ their operations. This process led to the creation of al-Qaeda franchises in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Kashmir, Algeria, Uzbekistan, Malaysia and the Philippines. Those that comprise al-Qaeda share the view that violent struggle directed at the West is essential for an Islamic spiritual revival. Jihadists point to US and allied forces in Muslim countries like Iraq and Afghanistan to underscore their belief that the West is in a state of conflict with Islam.
By mid 2007, US Intelligence found that al-Qaeda was regaining strength in Pakistan and launched a sustained effort to eliminate them utilizing Predator drones. The US has been effective in reducing al-Qaeda’s command and control in Pakistan though they have been very active and successful training Pakistani based Insurgent groups such as Hizb-e Islami, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad and the Tehrik-e-Taiban though none have been as lethal to US and Afghan forces as the Haqqani Network which has been closely tied to the Pakistani military.
While al-Qaeda was successful at growing its organization by bringing together a spectrum of like minded groups, it is important to point out that there is no traditional hierarchy in al-Qaeda’s broader organization. Similarly, there does not exist a full command structure over its branch and franchises. Due to the overall autonomy given to these operations, they have not been seriously impacted by the crackdown on al-Qaeda’s core in Pakistan.
Today’s most lethal and effective operation can be found in Yemen which has become the perfect domicile. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was comprised upon its inception of al-Qaeda members unlike the creation of other ‘franchises’ which were made up of members who swore an oath of allegiance to Bin Laden and merged their respective entity under al-Qaeda’s umbrella. The Yemeni ‘branch’ has only really become operational in terms of attacks outside of its region in the last two years. The civil war which has driven President Ali Abdullah Saleh to seek refuge in Saudi Arabia has also created an area of enormous concern for the US. Somalia and Al Shabaab have increasingly received greater attention as al-Qaeda linked jihadis despite the fact that Bin Laden never formally brought them into his organization.
After the successful targeting of Osama Bin Laden on May 1st a number of officials have dismissed al-Qaeda's ability to effectively threaten the US. This is a mistake as Al-Qaeda should not simply be seen as a core of leadership operating in Pakistan but as a more complex entity with branches and franchises much farther afield capable of attacking regional interests despite the core leadership being under constant pressure. The latest speculation on al-Qaeda’s current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is that he has relocated to either Yemen or Somalia.
Al-Qaeda today has a larger membership, more significant geographical reach and a heightened level of ideological sophistication and influence than it had in 2001. The development of the Internet has greatly enabled the dissemination of al-Qaeda’s message and become a facilitator of global Islamic terrorism through electronic chatrooms and other social media. Counter terrorism tasks have been greatly complicated by the need for our intelligence assets to increasingly follow our adversaries in such a virtual realm. Of growing concern is the decentralization and dissemination of smaller autonomous cells and ‘home grown’ terrorists.
America must remain vigilant and particularly so at a time when the President prepares to draw down all US military forces from Iraq where the Iranians are poised to immediately fill the vacuum created. Furthermore, the Administration’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan at a pace that runs counter to military recommendations is transparently political. Furthermore, it is a recipe for increased casualties and mission failure which in the end will only succeed in bringing groups like al-Qaeda back into a position to threaten the West.
The American intelligence community must continue this war in the shadows. They will need to do whatever is necessary to protect the homeland from a determined adversary that could launch yet another even more devastating attack. Should any foreign national entity or individual be identified as supporting or otherwise seeking to provide material support or inflict harm upon the US, there should be no ambiguity as to how they will be dealt with regardless of national origin. Being politically correct at a time when the stakes could not be higher is unconscionable and it is the responsibility of every American to remain vigilant, determined and accountable.