Al-Qaeda, Still in Business
Over the past four years, key members of the Bush administration have claimed that al-Qaeda is "on the run" (Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice), "disrupted" (George Tenet) or "decimated" (President Bush). At the same time, however, significant terrorist attacks around the world have dramatically increased since Sept. 11, 2001, most of them conducted by militant Islamists.
The franchising of al-Qaeda
In the last four years al-Qaeda has gone from an organization to a movement making it even harder to fight using conventional tool of war.
A new narrative that purports to answer that question has emerged: Yes, al-Qaeda as an organization is severely impaired, but it has been replaced by a broader ideological movement made up of self-starting, homegrown terrorists who have few formal links to al-Qaeda but are motivated by a doctrine that can be called "Binladenism." Recent examples would include the militants in Madrid who bombed commuter trains in March 2004 and killed 191 people, or the seven terrorist wannabes recently arrested in Miami in connection with an alleged plot to blow up federal buildings. They had embraced al-Qaeda's doctrine of destruction, yet had no ties to the terrorist group.
However, according to five veteran U.S. counterterrorism officials I've spoken with recently, al-Qaeda the organization remains a real threat. One longtime government terrorism analyst points to the four suicide attacks in London last July 7 that killed 52 people as evidence of the organization's resilience. "At a minimum, this was an al-Qaeda-supported operation," the analyst told me. And al-Qaeda's leaders don't seem to be feeling the heat of the "war on terror." On Thursday, Osama bin Laden released his third audiotape in three months, while his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has appeared on an unprecedented number of videotapes since the second week of June -- averaging one a week.
So while the rapid spread of al-Qaeda's ideology in the past two years -- partly fueled by the Iraq war -- should be of considerable concern, it would be quite wrong to conclude that al-Qaeda the organization is down for the count. Indeed, if the bombings in London are any indication, it may be staging a comeback.
Graduate School in Iraq
The rapidly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan over the past year is also, in part, the responsibility of al-Qaeda. The use of suicide attacks and makeshift bombs and the beheadings of hostages -- all techniques that al-Qaeda perfected in Iraq -- are methods that the Taliban has increasingly adopted in Afghanistan, making much of the south of the country a no-go area.
Hekmat Karzai, an Afghan terrorism researcher at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, points out that suicide bombings were rare in Afghanistan until 2005, when 21 such attacks took place. This year has already seen at least 16. In addition, Karzai reports that two of al-Qaeda's "most able" commanders -- Khalid Habib, a Moroccan, and Abd al Hadi, an Iraqi -- have been appointed to run its operations in southeastern and southwestern Afghanistan. These developments suggest that al-Qaeda is regrouping and strengthening along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
The results of the "war on terror"
Almost five years after the attacks on Washington and New York, al-Qaeda not only remains in business in its traditional stronghold on the Afghan-Pakistan border, but continues to project its ideology and terrorism abroad. So now we face a world of ideologically driven homegrown terrorists -- free radicals unattached to any formal organization -- in addition to formal networks such as al-Qaeda that have managed to survive despite the tremendous pressure brought to bear against them since 9/11. And even more grim, they now feed off and strengthen one another.That's right, al-Qaeda is not only alive and well but becoming increasingly more dangerous and harder to fight. The drug lords have been able to adapt to the "war on drugs" and it seems that al-Qaeda is successfully adapting to the "war on terror".