Al Qaeda: Weakened, Not Defeated

Is Al Qaeda in its death throes? Hardly, say terrorism experts: The Al Qaeda network has been temporarily weakened on a few fronts, to be sure, but it is far from defeated.

Nevertheless, the authors of a recent spate of end-of-terror essays would have us believe otherwise.  Paul Cruickshank writing for the New York Daily News, even goes so far as to suggest that the likelihood of “terror returning to New York’s streets” may be “significantly lower” within a few years.

We all hope so. But the prediction, some say, is either wishful thinking or perhaps a bit of politics.

The essays — written by Cruickshank and his compatriots Peter Bergen, Lawrence Wright, and others — come on the heels of CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden’s recent statements that “Al Qaeda is on the verge of a strategic defeat in Iraq,” and suggesting (though in broad, cautious terms) that the international terrorist network is suffering setbacks elsewhere in the world.

Al Qaeda is suffering numerous setbacks on specific fronts — like Iraq and Saudi Arabia — and for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the network’s human brutality factor (terror-weary Muslims have suffered at the hands of Al Qaeda as much as non-Muslims) and the fact that U.S. and allied counterterrorism forces have beaten the enemy senseless on a number of sub-fronts. Rarely will we ever hear of those operations because those forces, of necessity, do their jobs in secret.

But setbacks do not mean the demise of the network is at hand. On the contrary, what we are seeing is a series of tactical defeats and strategic setbacks, which are forcing the network to regroup and recalibrate its approaches to destroying the West. Those defeats and setbacks may also be wrongly permitting the war-is-now-over crowd to hastily proclaim that America’s enemies are no more. And to suggest that America’s enemies “are no more” may be just as politically-motivated as the eager albeit completely wrong declarations by some in Congress, more than two years ago, that America was defeated in Iraq.

The politics behind it all may be simple: A misperception that Al Qaeda is on its last legs could conceivably suggest to American voters that it is no longer necessary to rally behind the presidential candidate with the superior national security background. National security and counterterrorism experts, however, are quick to tell me that such a perception is not only flawed, but utterly naïve and dangerous.

“While it may be true that Al Qaeda — the centralized organization — may have experienced some difficulties of late, it is remarkably shortsighted to generalize from an operational respite,” Dr. J. Peter Pham, director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University and a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, tells HUMAN EVENTS. “In fact, a credible case that some of the ‘franchises’ which Al Qaeda has acquired in recent years such as ‘Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’ have extended the network’s reach into areas where hitherto it has had little reach such as the North African diaspora in Western Europe. Over the long term, the present period might be but a brief lull before a larger storm.”

Clare M. Lopez, a former CIA operations officer and the former executive director of the Iran Policy Committee, tells HUMAN EVENTS that — because Al Qaeda has been largely defeated in Iraq — the network is looking to shift its assets to greener fields like the more remote, lawless-regions of Africa and the increasingly diverse, poorly assimilated populations of western Europe to which Pham alludes. The network’s leadership and inner circle also will continue operating in the Pakistani-Afghan border regions, and perhaps even Iran.

“Some say Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri cross the border upon occasion for a bit of falcon hunting and to convene the Al Qaeda shura in Iran,” says Lopez.

There is also Eastern Europe and elsewhere in the Middle East.

“We must not forget that Al Qaeda is a master at infiltrating others’ battles and making them its own — incorporating them into the international Jihad,” says Lopez. “So Al Qaeda remains active in Chechnya and in the Balkans, especially Bosnia-Herzegovina. Also watch Kosovo.”

Then there are the southwest Asian training camps, which according to Lopez, “are reportedly full of ‘clean skins’ — fair-skinned Westerners with light hair and eyes who are not black. Conversion to Islam is big business these days. Training complete, these fighters will come back — and many of them carry European passports.”

She adds, “I also see Al Qaeda making a serious move into the Levant: Al Qaeda leaders have long been writing, speaking, broadcasting, publishing about Palestine and about destroying the Jews. So, the infiltration into Gaza, the West Bank — to a lesser extent so far — and of course, into the refugee camps in Lebanon and elsewhere is in motion.”

Peter Brookes, also a former CIA operations officer and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs, agrees, adding there is always the goal of again striking the U.S. and inflicting irrecoverable damage against us. “Al Qaeda is still interested in weapons of mass destruction and will use them if they get the chance,” Brookes tells HUMAN EVENTS.

As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, Al Qaeda — its cells, supporters, and enablers — also are increasingly coordinating efforts with unlikely allies like Iran’s proxy army, Hizballah (a Lebanon-based international terrorist group which Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff warned last month “makes Al Qaeda look like a minor league team”)

Of course, some will argue that Sunni Al Qaeda and Shiia Hizballah are composed of centuries-old feuding foes. But their 2008 cooperation in the broader spirit of Jihad reflects the oft-quoted Arab proverb: “I against my brother; I and my brother against my cousin; I and my brother and my cousin against the world.” And members of U.S. and allied intelligence communities, special operations forces, and international police are increasingly running up against Jihadists who have been trained and financed by both Al Qaeda and Hizballah.

As Lopez tells me, the war on terror is not simply about Al Qaeda and should never be defined that way. “It’s about the international Islamic Jihad movement,” she says. “Al Qaeda is just the tip of the spear, the hot-headed ones who had to go and rouse the sleeping giant on 9/11 before things had progressed far enough to reap the gains that otherwise might have accrued by such a strike, like Madrid: Spain was ready to fold and it did.”

The greater danger, says Lopez, is what she and other terrorism experts – like Robert Spencer and Walid Phares — frequently refer to as “stealth Jihad” or “Jihad by infiltration, propaganda, psychological operations, persuasion, and demographics … and creeping Sharia.”

The current misplaced naïveté as read and heard in the comments of those proclaiming Al Qaeda to be in a state of collapse also seems to equate the entire problem of international terrorism with the single network, which as Lopez points out, is “hardly an ‘aimless death cult,’ or which has hardly ‘hijacked a peaceful religion,’ and is hardly in its final death throes because its ‘ideology is corrupt’ [as some in the mainstream media have suggested].”

Al Qaeda is adapting and reconstituting itself in the face of its ideological setbacks and a loss of support on a few fronts, as well as its constant battlefield defeats (a reflection of increasingly improving Western intelligence).

Any military commander worth his salt knows that in a fight, one never lets up when he has the enemy on the ropes, nor when he has forced the enemy onto ground — or a position — he has previously chosen for that enemy.  When the enemy is forced to break contact in a fight, a good commander never permits that enemy to retire from the field so that he can regroup and come back perhaps even stronger. A good commander pursues the weakened enemy.

A weakened enemy and an opportunity to press any gains against a weakened enemy should be seen as opportunities. Squandered opportunities in any fight — and in our war on Jihadist terrorism — might never be regained. And despite what some might have us believe, this fight is far from over.