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The ever-evolving al-Qaeda threat

Since the brutal attack in Boston a few weeks ago, the word terrorism, without being preceded by the word "cyber," unfortunately returned to our lexicon.  For those who have spent the better part of the past decade obsessed by the al Qaeda terrorism threat, there was much in Boston that looked very familiar. Two men ...

ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images
ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images

Since the brutal attack in Boston a few weeks ago, the word terrorism, without being preceded by the word "cyber," unfortunately returned to our lexicon.  For those who have spent the better part of the past decade obsessed by the al Qaeda terrorism threat, there was much in Boston that looked very familiar.

Two men who have spent an even longer time watching the evolution of the al Qaeda threat, Abdel Bari Atwan, the editor in chief of the London-based newspaper, Al-Quds al-Arabi, and Phil Mudd, a former CIA analyst, Deputy Director of the agency’s Counterterrorist Center, and Deputy Director of the National Security Branch at the FBI, have both written important and well-argued books that have a direct relevance to the al Qaeda inspired attack in Boston, the ongoing evolution of the al Qaeda threat and the U.S. intelligence community’s current and future capacity to understand the ever-changing nature of that threat.

Abdel Bari Atwan’s book, After Bin Laden – Al Qaeda the Next Generation, as its title connotes, seeks to explain the characteristics of "Al Qaeda and Associated Movements," or AQAM as he likes to call them, in the wake of bin Laden’s death. 

Not surprisingly, Mr. Atwan makes a compelling case that while the death of Osama bin Laden and the decimation of al Qaeda Core’s top leadership has hurt the central organization that was based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the movement and ideology, with its worldwide presence via regional associated movements, is as much of a menace to the West as ever and undiminished in its goal of a global caliphate.

Mr. Atwan spends considerable time discussing the poorly named "Arab Spring," the successive revolutions which occurred across the Arab world and the relationship that these events have with indigenous al Qaeda-associated movements that have their own deep roots in some of the very states that saw their governments topple, sectarian conflicts break into the open, and civil wars erupt.

While many of us in the West hoped that the revolutions in the Arab states would herald better governance and the opportunity for homegrown secularists with their own domestic legitimacy to rise, Mr. Atwan saw a different future – one where Islamist parties would dominate the ballot box and armed Islamists or AQAM would have a role to play as well.

Mr. Atwan takes the reader on an impressive tour of the Islamic world, with chapters and sections on almost every country and region from Arabia to Uzbekistan.  While some of the background history that he provides on each country or region is old news to regular readers of the New York Times international section, they do provide the context in each locale for Mr. Atwan to make his most provocative argument – al Qaeda-associated movements are poised for a comeback when either the Islamists or secularists fail in their efforts of good governance, regardless of whether it is in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Nigeria, North Africa, Sinai, or Central Asia.  While the situation in each country is distinct, in general, regional al Qaeda-type violence certainly seems unabated and potentially is on the upswing in countries like Iraq, Nigeria, Mali and Syria.

Mr. Atwan is at his best when explaining the tribal dynamics in such places as Yemen, where different alliances among the tribes and their long standing dissatisfaction with any central government make them a natural ally of al Qaeda-associated movements, who also seek to challenge the central government, are armed, and espouse an austere form of Islam that is not foreign to the locals.  Mr. Atwan draws similar astute insights about local dynamics when considering the prospects for growth for al Qaeda in the states of North Africa or the Islamic Maghreb.

Unlike many who follow jihadist groups, Mr. Atwan did not neglect the unstable Russian Caucasus region, including Chechnya and Dagestan -places now etched in the American consciousness.  While some may not have understood the centrality of the Caucasus in the al Qaeda narrative, Mr. Atwan captures not only its importance, but also its worldwide links to jihadists in Pakistan, the Middle East, and even Europe.

With such a broad array of al Qaeda-associated threats gathering across the globe, and a sporadic, hard to characterize, homegrown threat now having proven its capability to kill, one is likely to worry how the United States will confront this multi-faceted threat matrix.

Fortunately, we have Philip Mudd, who ate, slept, and dreamt this threat for the better part of this past decade from within various parts the U.S. counterterrorism bureaucracy, to provide a unique perspective on how the United States is organized to confront this threat.  What gives Mr. Mudd’s book, Takedown – Inside the Hunt for Al Qaeda, its arc is his career trajectory within a counterterrorism bureaucracy that was constantly evolving to catch up to and ultimately try to stay ahead of a rapidly evolving al Qaeda threat.

For an outsider, Mr. Mudd provides unique insights as to what it was like on a day-to-day basis working in the CIA Counterterrorism Center and FBI National Security Branch and how those entities functioned, faults and all.  Mudd’s descriptions of his encounters with senior policymakers and agency heads like Secretary of State Colin Powell, CIA Director George Tenet, Attorney General Michael Mukasey, and FBI Director Robert Mueller could easily have been found in a typical Bob Woodward book about inside Washington.  However, Mr. Mudd is a gentleman and takes the high road in his recollections.  The book is less about "takedowns" of particular terrorists and much more a story of Mr. Mudd’s experiences inside the U.S. national security apparatus, embedded in explanations of the functioning of the U.S. counterterrorism community’s threat bureaucracy.

Mr. Mudd’s vantage point from inside the different organizations at particular points in time allows him to explain how the al Qaeda threat looked to the U.S. government at various points during the last decade.  This perspective is quite important and in many ways sets up the findings of Mr. Atwan’s book about al Qaeda post-bin Laden.

Mr. Mudd served as a National Security Council staffer when the attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred, after which he returned to CIA where he found himself at the rapidly growing Counterterrorism Center.  At that time, the U.S. intelligence community was concerned primarily – and rightly – with al Qaeda Core in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and how to understand the hierarchy and network that supported it.  So, the arrests, capture, and subsequent interviews of senior al Qaeda leaders such as Abu Zubayda and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed provided the intelligence community with information that could help potentially thwart plots or provide insights on other plotters and was, as Mr. Mudd describes it, "gold" for intelligence analysts.

As progress was being made against al Qaeda Core in the Af/Pak region, the United States mobilized for the Iraq War.  Mr. Mudd describes how, suddenly, the al Qaeda-linked insurgency in Iraq that rose up in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion became an important focus and required an expansion of resources at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center.  Moreover, the phenomenon was not confined to Iraq after 2003 – but rather, an al Qaeda threat was spreading through South East Asia, North Africa, Turkey and Europe, as evidenced by attacks in these areas.

Although Mr. Mudd does not provide the detailed historical context or local dynamics that Mr. Atwan focuses on to explain this geographic proliferation of the al Qaeda threat, he does focus on one element that is a key common factor among all the al Qaeda associated groups regardless of where they are – ideology.  This ideology is not only anti-Western, but also requires the overthrow of Middle Eastern regimes, and thus
"attacks are meant to spark a revolution, not an end in themselves." 

Furthermore, Mr. Mudd explains that it was during this time period (2003-2006) that the U.S counterterrorism community felt an acute sense of "surprise and unknowing" given the geographic sprawl that characterized al Qaeda attacks during this time. As time wore on, though, the intelligence community began to dedicate analysts not solely to al Qaeda Core but rather to these geographically disperse regions that now seemingly housed al Qaeda problems.  Interestingly, what Mr. Mudd describes happening at the national level was also happening at the NYPD Intelligence Division, and we too had to both widen the aperture of our analytic lens and devote more resources to a broader and more diverse al Qaeda threat during those years.

Once Mr. Mudd moved to the FBI, on loan from the CIA, he gained insight into the threat that was increasingly manifesting itself in the West and ultimately struck in Boston – the homegrown threat, comprised of "loose clusters of youths, typically kids who were angry and thought other members of their communities weren’t serious about opposing what they saw as a U.S. or Western crusade in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere."  These men had little if any operational links to al Qaeda, but rather were inspired to act by the group’s ideology.  

As the reader finishes both books, the authors veer off into very different directions.  Mr. Mudd makes no predictions as to what the threat will look like in future years, but gives the impression that the terrorism threat management bureaucracy in the United States had become more streamlined and regularized, or "far more well-oiled and less jumpy, than in the first years," suggestive of a higher level of functionality and capacity to thwart future al Qaeda plots.

Mr. Atwan, however, paints a picture that unfortunately does not bode well and in some ways challenges the assertions that the U.S. intelligence community has adequately evolved enough to face the diffuse, de-centralized al Qaeda threat that we face today.  In Mr. Atwan’s world, various al Qaeda-type groups coordinate and collaborate across huge swaths of the earth and take advantage of the chaos and instability of the post-Arab Spring Middle East.  New post-revolutionary governments, whether Islamist or secular, may face protestors and al Qaeda-type terrorists who work together, if they falter or fail to deliver the changes that were promised. 

Mr. Mudd is clearly right in that the U.S. intelligence community now has the bandwidth and regional expertise to adequately focus on a diverse and dispersed al Qaeda threat.  However, the ability to better understand the threat and the ability to roll it back are different processes (intelligence analysis vs. counterterrorism policy execution).  Unfortunately, greater and deeper insights do not assure American counterterrorism success, especially when Mr. Atwan makes a compelling case that we face a future of many ‘al Qaedas’ who have metastasized in hard to get at places, are unlikely to be completely defeated on the battlefield, nor collapse because of infighting, nor be successfully rendered impotent via U.S.-led decapitation strategies.  Thus, despite the U.S. intelligence community’s increase in terms of both breadth and depth of expertise, the longest war will probably go on longer, and we may have to be content with an American strategy that can keep the regional al Qaeda franchise threats in check, but cannot eradicate them. 

Mitchell D. Silber is the Executive Managing Director of K2 Intelligence and was the Director of Intelligence Analysis for the New York Police Department from 2007 to 2012.  

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