Although al Qaeda appears to be coming under pressure in some dimensions, I remain wary of calling a tipping point, and I am even more skeptical about the prospect of a knockout punch. We are still too close to the events to discern the long-term trajectory of the campaign against al Qaeda. And almost nine years after 9/11, analysts are still remarkably divided in their assessments of al Qaeda's current situation, specifically the current role played by al Qaeda's central command.
Al Qaeda Central's capability to project power in the form of terrorist attacks has diminished. There have been no successful centrally-directed terrorist attacks in the West since 2005. Authorities have uncovered and foiled numerous terrorist plots, some centrally-connected. These indicate intent but lack of craft. Those attacks that have occurred comprise lone gunmen or inept bombers. Clearly, al Qaeda confronts a quality control problem.
A front-by-front appreciation of the situation shows weaknesses and strengths. Al Qaeda's top leadership remains at large. Whatever inner doubts they may have are not on display. Instead, their continuing exhortations to violence suggest that their determination to continue the armed struggle is undiminished.
Al Qaeda has assembled a global communications network. When Osama bin Laden talks, many still listen—some even applaud. But that has not translated into an Islamic uprising—a global intifada.
Al Qaeda has spread its ideology. It can radicalize and recruit homegrown terrorists to its cause, although in very small numbers. Al Qaeda's affiliates in Iraq demonstrate their continuing capacity for large-scale violence and continue terrorist campaigns in Algeria and Yemen. The situation in Afghanistan, where last fall, American and NATO forces were judged to be losing, has not yet turned around. Pakistan has recently begun to make progress. Cooperation between the United States and Pakistan—a difficult but essential partnership has improved the flow of intelligence, but many in Pakistan still see the campaign against the jihadists as a distraction from the real enemy, India.
Al Qaeda's allies in Somalia rule much of the country while intelligence reports warn of al Qaeda recruiting in Western Africa. And although the situation in the Caucasus is distant from al Qaeda organizationally and has its own dynamic, the conflict there is far from over as recent terrorist attacks indicate.
Al Qaeda appears strongest where it has been able to attach itself to deeper-rooted local conflicts like those in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Algeria, Yemen, and Somalia. Some of these resulted from America's own actions. Al Qaeda's ideology does not fuel these contests—al Qaeda rides with them.
There are cumulative reasons for al Qaeda's current difficulties. Its own terrorist attacks provoked crackdowns that ripped apart whatever local networks it had in places like Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, and Indonesia. Intelligence has gradually improved, while unprecedented international cooperation among intelligence services and law enforcement has made al Qaeda's operating environment more hostile.
Al Qaeda's bloody excesses have turned off some of its potential constituents, but al Qaeda's biggest problem is relevance. What will the reestablishment of the caliphate offer those seeking freedom, an education, jobs, or a better future for their families?
Historical experience suggests that terrorist campaigns can survive the loss of their top leaders. The founders of Italy's Red Brigades and Germany's Red Army Faction were apprehended early in the contest, which continued in both cases for more than 10 years. Israel has been targeting Palestinian commanders for decades.
The PKK in Turkey and the FARC in Colombia continue their guerrilla campaigns despite loss of their leaders. Although the removal of al Qaeda's top leaders must remain an objective, it will not end the jihadist campaign.
Removing operational commanders—precious talent, however, demonstrably diminishes the effectiveness of terrorist operations. Terrorists will continue to carry out attacks, but with less training, direction and hands-on assistance, they will kill as fewer people. And the appearance of incompetence and failure tarnishes the allure of the terrorist organization.
But there is still a long way to go.
Brian Michael Jenkins, Senior Advisor to the President of the RAND Corporation
This op-ed was one of a panel of experts' responses that originally appeared on security.nationaljournal.com.
This commentary originally appeared on NationalJournal.com on April 26, 2010.