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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Well, Is Al Qaeda Winning Or Not?

Some of my favorite thinkers have diametrically opposing pieces in The Atlantic today. Will McCants and William Rosenau write about How We Won the War on Terror, while Daveed Gartenstein-Ross writes that Al Qaeda is Winning.

Followers of my work will know that I reviewed and agreed with the thesis put forward by Gartenstein-Ross in his new book, Bin Laden's Legacy.

However McCants is a powerhouse in this field, and the piece he and Rosenau put forward makes some very valid points, arriving at a completely different conclusion but ultimately making some of the same policy prescriptions as Gartenstein-Ross.

While there are many reasons I agree with Gartenstein-Ross' thesis, I want to talk briefly about an issue that neither column raises, but which I think is chiefly responsible for Al Qaeda's failure to mount a successful mass casualty attack since 9/11.

For more than a decade prior to September 11, Al Qaeda and its close allies ran a series of mass production terrorist training camps in the AfPak region. The U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, along with substantial pressure on Pakistan, has crippled that training camp network.

Although the camps have not been totally eliminated, they have been massively disrupted. In the past, the camps could and did process hundreds of recruits at any given time, providing religious indoctrination, basic military training and advanced military training. The training could take place over the course of months or years, and there were relatively few obstacles to traveling to the camps.

Such camps still exist, but they're no longer centralized. They are harder to reach, and the courses they offer are less thorough and much more rushed.

When we talk about Al Qaeda winning or losing, we have to account for the fact we are fighting a war of containment rather than clear victory. The continued pressure we are exerting over the training camp network is largely responsible for Al Qaeda's inability to carry out mass casualty attacks or to train loosely affiliated comrades to do the same.

Since 9/11, we have seen foiled attacks and we have seen failed attacks. On the latter front, from Times Square to the underwear bomber to the lone wolves, lack of training is an overwhelming theme. Training camps still exist, but they are smaller and less secure, with fewer experienced personnel. The training regimen is rushed, candidates enter and are turned around very quickly for attacks without the months or years of advanced training and religious indoctrination seen in the past.

If Faisal Shahzad or Omar Abdulmutallab had been thoroughly and competently trained, their attacks could easily have succeeded, and we'd be having a very different conversation today.

Without fully operational mass-production training camps, there would not have been a World Trade Center bombing in 1993, there would not have been the East African embassy bombings in 1998, and there would not have been a September 11.

Unfortunately, there are two reasons why we can't declare victory on this issue.

First, it is obvious to everyone that we can't stay in Afghanistan forever. Our success in the AfPak region, such as it is, is based on a strategy of constant pressure.

In the absence of that pressure, and under any foreseeable (to me) scenario involving a weak Afghan government and an ambivalent Pakistani military-intelligence apparatus, I see very little reason to think that Al Qaeda's camps won't regenerate once we leave the region. We have the tool of drones today, which we didn't have before, but it's not a magic wand that can operate forever without restraints, especially in the absence of local support.

Second, Al Qaeda now has growing opportunities to train operatives in other places, most notably Somalia and Yemen, and future prospects in Iraq and various points around Africa. Those operations are still small relative to their AfPak predecessors, but they appear to be growing.

We have drone operations in some of these locations, but as noted above, I'm not convinced they can be as effective over a long haul as our substantial military presence in the AfPak theater.

Despite coming at it from different angles, McCants and Gartenstein-Ross -- and a growing chorus of other experts -- all agree that we need to scale back our military and security outlay for reasons both financial and sociological, and I agree with that as well.

But we need to accept that such cutbacks will likely enhance Al Qaeda's prospects for successful attacks in the medium-term future. That enhancement, combined with the wild political uncertainties of the Arab Spring, make it hard for me to be optimistic that we have won -- or can be said to be winning -- our war with Al Qaeda in the foreseeable future.

A final note of caution: The complex attack carried out in Norway by Anders Breivik is likely to inspire imitators. Breivik did something that no one else has -- he showed that a single person can carry out a spectacular terrorist attack, and he provided a detailed account of how he accomplished the task. This could be a game-changer even in the absence of a robust training network, but if and when the network regenerates, the new breed of instructors will most certainly be studying Breivik's tactics (as will other, non-AQ actors).

The war against al Qaeda is most certainly changing, but I'm hard pressed to see how that change puts us in the position of winning or having won. It's arguably an overstatement to say Al Qaeda is winning, per se, but it is successfully executing a large part of the "bleed-to-bankruptcy" strategy it has delineated in its statements. The Arab Spring, the death of bin Laden and other factors may well help us, but we are a long way from seeing the ultimate impact of those events.

For more about al Qaeda training camps and the terror network's American recruits, check out J.M. Berger's new book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, on sale everywhere.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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