It's Far from Safe to Say al-Qaeda Is Dead
A growing chorus of Western analysts is arguing that al-Qaeda is dead, and that it is time to end the "global war on terror." As the ubiquitous CNN terrorism analyst and bestselling author Peter Bergen put it: "We can declare victory against the group and move on" to such challenges as "a rising China, managing the rogue regime in North Korea, continuing to delay Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons, and - to the extent feasible - helping to direct the maturation of the Arab Spring."
It would be truly foolish to delay action on the pressing matters Bergen mentions in order to focus solely on al-Qaeda. But, likewise, declaring the jihadi group defeated seems premature, especially given the way that rumors of al-Qaeda's death proved in the past to be greatly exaggerated.
There were, for example, prominent claims of the group's erosion after it lost its Afghanistan safe haven in 2001. Thereafter, analysts often referred to the group as "more of an ideology than an organization." In other words, they believed the organization had been shattered, and only the underlying idea of deadly jihad (potent though it was) remained. However, views shifted dramatically in August 2006, when the group was discovered to have exercised command and control over a disrupted scheme to destroy seven flights bound for the United States from Britain. That plot caused the U.S. intelligence community to reassess its view of the jihadi group, finding that it had "protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability."
Proponents of the idea that we have achieved a near-total solution to the challenge posed by al-Qaeda concede this history. However, they argue - in the worlds of scholar Thomas F. Lynch III - that "the present circumstances are fundamentally different from those at the middle of the last decade."
Admittedly, Osama bin Laden's death was significant, and al-Qaeda has experienced great attrition at top levels through such operations as the U.S. drone campaign. Al-Qaeda's excesses have tarnished its reputation across the Muslim world. And many observers believe that the uprisings in the Arab world, by enabling nonviolent Islamist activism, will diminish al-Qaeda's pull by creating alternatives to its violent approach.
But in part, how we evaluate al-Qaeda in 2012 comes down to how to weigh the central leadership's losses against gains made by affiliates and fellow travelers. The chaos in Mali has created opportunities for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Al-Qaeda in Iraq retains lethal capabilities, as shown by a recent sequence of attacks that left more than 100 people dead. And though affiliate groups Shabaab (Somalia) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen) have experienced recent military losses, they began the year controlling significant territory in their respective theatres, and many observers expect them to regain lost ground.
Meanwhile, groups that subscribe to an al-Qaedaist ideology have emerged or made gains in Egypt, Syria and Nigeria. The Nigerian group Boko Haram has taken more than 1,000 lives over the past 18 months.
Nor is it clear that al-Qaeda's core is down for the count. The group endured massive attrition in the past, but rebounded. Indeed, al-Qaeda's losses in the 1990s alone would have crippled most other militant organizations. (Israel rendered both the Abu Nidal Organization and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine non-functional by imposing far less stress.)
During the Iraq insurgency, the U.S. routinely decimated the target lists of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Ansar al Sunna, the 1920 Revolution Brigade, the Islamic Army of Iraq, Hamas al Iraq and others. However, they endured until the emergence of the grassroots Anbar Awakening, which fundamentally altered the situation on the ground. Is the core leadership of al-Qaeda less resilient than these Iraqi groups?
Part of al-Qaeda's resiliency lies in its organizational structure. Derek Jones, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, recently published a monograph with Joint Special Operations University entitled Understanding the Form, Function, and Logic of Clandestine Insurgent and Terrorist Networks. Jones's work represents an important contribution to how we think about networks like al-Qaeda, since many analysts' estimates of how much attrition will be enough to cripple it are no better than assumptions.
Jones argues that al-Qaeda and similar groups are clandestine cellular networks: clandestine in the sense that they are designed to be hidden, and cellular in the sense that they are compartmentalized to minimize damage when enemy forces neutralize some portion of the network. The logic of this structure is that it allows the organization to survive attrition, in line with the well-worn adage that by slowly eroding the opponent's will, a guerrilla network "wins by not losing."
One of Jones's overarching conclusions is that "the removal of single individuals, regardless of function, is well within the tolerance of this type of organizational structure." In other words, killing senior officers won't stop the group, nor is it likely to weaken it greatly without a broader strategy. (I think this point is overstated because some leaders truly are more capable than others, but it nonetheless provides important insight into what such structures are designed to accomplish.)
Has attrition within al-Qaeda overwhelmed its ability to absorb losses? It's hard to know: When al-Qaeda rebounded between 2002 and 2006, it did so in the shadows. At present, many aspects of the core's efforts to reestablish itself are similarly obscured.
We should avoid prematurely penning al-Qaeda's obituary. After all, this isn't the first time that a large percentage of observers considered the group to be dead.