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Evaluating the war with al Qaeda, part IV: How well are we doing?

Evaluating the war with al Qaeda, part IV:  How well are we doing?

In previous posts (here, here, and here), I’ve looked at three important questions that we must answer if we are to assess how well the U.S. is doing in its war on al Qaeda: defining al Qaeda, naming the group’s objectives, and then examining how well it is doing at achieving its goals. I’ve suggested that the U.S. comes to quite different conclusions than al Qaeda itself on all three of these issues. According to a majority of experts — both within and outside government — al Qaeda is primarily the small "core" located somewhere in Afghanistan-Pakistan; the affiliates have an ambiguous relationship with this core and are generally focused on local concerns. The objective of the core is to attack the U.S. and its allies and, because of our excellent counter-terrorism (CT) efforts, we have thwarted all such attempts on the U.S. since 9-11. If this version of the conflict is true, we have nearly won, and only need to kill or capture a few more members of the core before it disintegrates completely.

Al Qaeda’s leadership, on the other hand, considers itself to be much more than just a core of terrorists, but rather the "high command" of a global organization. In their view, the affiliates (or branches), as well as many fighters in Afghanistan-Pakistan, are integral members of al Qaeda. They have publicly described expansive objectives that include overthrowing the rulers of every Muslim-majority country (whether part of an earlier Islamic state or not), imposing their version of sharia, and then setting up "amirates," or Islamic states in these countries. Al Qaeda believes that they have achieved many of these goals already and are pressing forward to seize more territory and set up new shadow governments.

So how do we reconcile these very different versions of the war and determine where we are at in this conflict? I believe that the most important question we can ask ourselves is this: Is al Qaeda better off now than it was ten years ago? If we just look at attacks on the U.S., its citizens, and even its allies, we will agree with the current majority view of al Qaeda and answer "no." Unlike before 9-11, when al Qaeda and terrorists trained by the group were able to carry out devastating attacks against the U.S. and its interests in 1993, 1995, 1998, and 2000, the period since 9-11 has been marked by one CT triumph after another. The planned follow-up attacks (the so-called "second wave") were foiled or failed to materialize and other serious plots have been stopped on a regular basis. The only large-scale attacks that succeeded were abroad (Bali (2002), Spain (2004), London (2005) — no other major attempts since 2005 have made it past the CT nets of the U.S. and our allies.

We will, however, draw quite a different conclusion if we look at how al Qaeda is faring in the rest of the world. On September 11, al Qaeda controlled perhaps a half-dozen camps in one safe-haven (Afghanistan) and had a few tentative alliances with other jihadist groups that had mostly local concerns. Today al Qaeda has multiple safe-havens (in northern Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, the Sahel); controls branches in many countries that share al Qaeda’s global aspirations; holds territory through shadow governments that force local Muslims to follow al Qaeda’s version of sharia; and is waging open war on numerous battlefields (Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Mali, etc.). Most tellingly, it is involved — sometimes weakly, at other times in strength — in every Muslim-majority country in the world.

Based on these facts, any net assessment of al Qaeda would conclude that, despite its failure to carry out a mass-casualty attack on the U.S. since 9-11, the group is in far better condition on a global scale than at any time in its history. And if, as al Qaeda itself has always argued, attacking the U.S. was just one means toward the greater ends of overthrowing Muslim rulers, imposing their version of sharia, and controlling territory, then they have made real progress toward achieving their strategic goals. This judgment is not just an esoteric statement about theory, but also has important policy implications: If al Qaeda is indeed spreading itself across broad swathes of territory, can the U.S. continue to depend solely on regional partners and a counter-terrorism strategy to stop the group?