Argument

Mission Not Accomplished

Reports of al Qaeda's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s statement last month that al Qaeda’s defeat is "within reach" should be cause for celebration. But given the decentralization of the jihadi movement over the past decade, that victory may be meaningless. Although U.S. counterterrorism efforts have indeed substantially weakened the organization, Panetta’s comments miss the bigger point about the terrorist threat facing the United States. Over the past decade, that threat has morphed from one led by a hierarchical al Qaeda organization into something much more diffuse, with a greater presence online, that no longer depends on orders from senior leaders in Pakistan.

Without doubt, Osama bin Laden’s death was a major setback to the organization, and his charismatic leadership will be difficult to replace. But senior officials in Barack Obama’s administration are also arguing that the tactic of targeting mid- to senior-level al Qaeda leaders is finally — after many years — beginning to pay dividends. That is, perhaps, an overly optimistic view. The reality is the terrorist threat has simply adapted to the post-9/11 security environment, and there is no evidence to suggest there are any fewer jihadists targeting the United States today. In fact, most anecdotal evidence seems to suggest there are more. Over the last three years, while the policy of targeted killings has been waged, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has emerged as the most lethal of the terrorist network’s franchises. While Panetta and other officials have acknowledged that AQAP now poses the greater threat to the United States, the pronouncing of al Qaeda’s impending demise nonetheless downplays the the equally if not more dangerous enemy that has emerged out of the ideology of the original. Over the coming years, American-born cleric and AQAP spokesman Anwar al-Awlaki seems poised to prove a significant politicizing figure — perhaps even more so than bin Laden — and a highly effective radicalizing force for militant jihad.

As drone warfare has waged in Waziristan and Afghanistan, AQAP leaders have operated with relative ease in Yemen and have successfully carried out a number of attacks against foreign and Yemeni targets in the country. These include deadly attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa in September 2008, dual suicide bombings against South Korean delegations in March 2009, the alleged dispatching of Carlos Bledsoe to open fire at a military recruitment office in Little Rock, Arkansas, in June 2009, and scores of attacks against security forces in Marib, Abyan, Shabwa, and other provinces of Yemen over the last two years. AQAP has also attempted two explosives attacks against airliners arriving in the United States, notably Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempted suicide bombing on Christmas Day 2009, using advanced chemicals in creative ways to bypass security measures. It seems unlikely the group would not attempt another similar attack in the future.

As the New York Times reported this June 14, the CIA is building a new base somewhere near the Arabian Peninsula to launch additional airstrikes against AQAP. Whether future attacks against the group will pay dividends is unknown, but those in recent years did not succeed in preventing, or even hindering, the emergence of this organization. AQAP has supplanted al Qaeda central at least in the sense that Awlaki garners significantly more online interest, especially from youth, than new al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and it is the franchise most active in attempting attacks outside its local environment, i.e., against Western targets. Given that the demise of this al Qaeda organization could well be years away, it seems premature, to say the least, to announce al Qaeda’s near demise.

Behind the public leadership of al Qaeda and its franchises, there is a depth of strategic thinking that buoys the movement, and it remains intact. Reading jihadi publications, one finds dozens of former militant commanders from campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s — Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir — who continue to provide advice to the movement, guidance on training and tactics, and a seemingly perpetual source of open-source written material that offers lessons for adapting to the enemy’s capabilities. Beyond these, there are dozens of highly qualified scholars who provide the religious justification for targeting and killing declared enemies. None of this infrastructure and intellectual framework has been weakened in any meaningful way during the last 10 years of warfare against al Qaeda. True, the Arab Spring took away some of al Qaeda’s luster as a revolutionary organization, but the protesters’ successes have not been meaningfully secured in Egypt or Tunisia, and change remains in the balance in Syria and Yemen.  

Jihadi "strategic thinkers" such as Abu Musab al-Suri and Yusuf al-Uyayri (now captured and killed, respectively) left behind a wealth of writing on their experiences waging militant campaigns. Al-Suri, a veteran of Syrian jihadi campaigns in the 1980s, and Uyayri, a commander in the local al Qaeda jihad against the Saudi state, gained copious lessons from their experiences and spread them globally online. Even though they are no longer active, their writing remains a critical component of jihadi literature and continues to shape the movement. Such continuity suggests an endurance of the militant jihadi movement beyond al Qaeda or even AQAP. They, along with other such strategists, were pragmatic and adaptive, two qualities we should be concerned about in an enemy as persistent as al Qaeda. As with AQAP’s experimentation with PETN (an explosive with the potential to cause significantly more damage than military-grade C4) and its attempts to outsmart security measures (the October 2010 attempted parcel bombing, as well as the August 2009 attack on Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef), this suggests an enemy that is likely to endure. And now, such strategic thinking has become further democratized, or crowdsourced.

Missile strikes from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have proved damaging to jihadi groups, particularly those operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas. This issue is being addressed, in part, by jihadi sympathizers (and perhaps participants) in discussion forums online. On a number of the most popular Arabic-language forums, an ongoing conversation is taking place over security measures to prevent drone attacks.

These countermeasures largely come in two categories: a technical response of hacking into the UAVs’ communications to down or redirect them, and the tactic of conducting attacks against Western targets in retaliation for these strikes. A number of discussants on various forums have suggested that Western citizens be kidnapped around the world to pressure the U.S. public to cease drone attacks against Muslims. In one such discussion, a user on the Ansar al-Mujahideen forum said in June, "after each [drone] strike, there must be a punishment, a jihadist operation in the land of the enemy, even if it is a simple one. Alternately, an operation could be carried out to execute Western captives for every time there is a drone attack. It must be automatic, and in response to every drone strike."

The user goes on to specify that these should not be mass-casualty attacks or biological or chemical attacks, but should be targeted and accompanied by statements that make clear they are in retaliation for drone strikes, in order to turn American public opinion against their use. Most interesting about this discussion is the consideration of American public opinion in determining the target of an attack. Along the lines of this user, others suggested various rhetorical means to demonstrate to the American public how many innocent Muslims are killed by drones. It is a rather nuanced terrorist tactic — discrete attacks to persuade a population toward a specific position, rather than a blunt, mass-casualty attack intended to intimidate that same populace.

As for technical means of countering drones, a number of jihadi groups or operatives have claimed to have successfully hacked into drones and posted images of UAV wreckage. They provide tutorials on software like SkyGrabber, a program that grabs free-to-air satellite data, with discussion-thread titles like "How to Down a Drone." It is conceivable that some UAVs have been downed by jihadists, but they have yet to demonstrate the tactic as a reliable and consistent deterrent to drone attacks. If indeed it is not, small-scale or targeted attacks countering the strikes are a distinct possibility for which Western publics should be prepared.

In mid-June, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI warned of a 40-person hit list generated by jihadi commentators on discussion forums in response to a video statement from U.S.-born al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn. That video, titled La Tukallafu Illa Nafsak, or roughly, No One Is Ordering You to Act Except Yourself, was a lengthy two-part series encouraging individuals to undertake solitary acts of jihad, accompanied by a media campaign on the forums in praise of "lone wolves." According to an open-source Department of Homeland Security report, commentators on the Arabic-language section of Ansar al-Mujahideen, in response to the Gadahn video, posted up to 40 names of government and industry leaders who could be potentially targeted in such "lone wolf" jihadi actions.

Although no major attacks have been carried out in the United States thus far, the development of this (albeit crude) plot in an open, online space, between individuals connected only by their shared ideology, represents the danger facing the West, particular in this post-bin Laden era. AQAP, with its high-profile, English-language Inspire magazine, has aggressively called on Muslims in the United States to train for and conduct attacks on their own. Most often, these are simple in nature — a licensed gun owner opening fire in a crowded Washington restaurant or public event. Thankfully, there does not appear to be a ready supply of volunteers heeding this call, but it only takes one such individual to cause significant damage. Jason Naser Abdo could have been one such case: He was arrested July 27 after going AWOL on July 4 and allegedly preparing explosives from the instructions provided in "How to Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom," from the inaugural issue of Inspire magazine.

Viewing the terrorism threat as solely embodied by al Qaeda as a discrete and hierarchical organization is both inaccurate and dangerous. The more important metric is the popularity of the Islamist movement generally and the jihadi movement specifically. Although it is difficult to measure, its online presence has undoubtedly grown rapidly over recent years. The jihadists’ media capabilities have expanded considerably over the past 10 years, and that content can easily be found across the Internet, even on the most mainstream of websites. By this time, it’s no surprise that jihadi videos are on YouTube. But their viewership isn’t all armchair jihadists; they are also people like Roshonara Choudhry, who stabbed her member of Parliament in Britain after watching "more than a hundred hours" of Awlaki lectures on YouTube.

Al Qaeda as we knew it 10 years ago may be no more. But at the rate it has been adapting, it seems likely the United States will be at war with this enemy for another decade. Whether individuals can be mobilized by AQAP’s media or that of other jihadi outfits to carry out effective attacks on the United States without training overseas is the most important question in counterterrorism and will likely remain so for years to come. Despite what appeared to be major gains for democracy and pluralism in the Arab Spring, the ideology behind al Qaeda remains compelling and widely consumed online. It was set back, but far from entirely discredited. And given that AQAP’s Inspire magazine — which has been consistently praising Maj. Nidal Hasan and encouraging individuals to attack U.S. targets — was found among Abdo’s downloads after his arrest and alleged bombing plot against personnel at Fort Hood, AQAP’s efforts to radicalize American Muslims should be taken seriously.

On Aug. 3 the White House took a good first step in creating a framework to counter violent jihad, in releasing "Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism." But it is just that: a framework. Ten years after 9/11, this document marks the U.S. government’s first concerted policy effort at countering radicalization. Certainly, it is coming years too late, but it is also short on detail and built largely around the concept of community engagement. Community engagement has been the centerpiece of British and Australian efforts to counter radicalization for at least the last four years. What those programs lacked was an element that confronted the ideology of militant Islam, at the national level and online. Emphasizing local community efforts is a logical endeavor, but the jihadi message is global and focused on Muslim suffering abroad, not on local issues in London, Melbourne, or Chicago. Eventually, Washington will have to confront the underlying ideology of militant Islam, not just its byproducts.

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