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Research Questions

  1. Has America won the operational battle but lost the ideological contest against al Qaeda?
  2. How has Bin Laden's death affected the organization?
  3. What is the effect of the Arab Spring on al Qaeda?
  4. Is maintaining American troops in Afghanistan essential?
  5. Should the United States declare on its own an end to the war on al Qaeda?

More than ten years after 9/11, there is still remarkable lack of consensus among analysts' assessments of al Qaeda's current condition and future capabilities. Almost every issue is debated: Whether America has won the operational battle but lost the ideological contest; whether homegrown terrorism is a growing threat; whether maintaining American troops in Afghanistan is essential; whether the United States ought to declare on its own an end to the war on al Qaeda. Part of the debate is driven by political agendas, but the arguments derive from the fact that al Qaeda is many things at once and must be viewed in all of its various dimensions. This essay examines a number of these issues in light of recent developments — the death of Osama bin Laden, the Arab Spring, and the American withdrawal from Iraq. In each case, it drives toward a bottom line. In the final analysis, it is a personal view.

Key Findings

Lack of Consensus on al Qaeda's Current Condition

  • Al Qaeda's operational capabilities have been reduced.
  • The architects of 9/11 have been captured or killed.
  • Al Qaeda today is far more decentralized than it was ten years ago and far more dependent on its autonomous field commands, its affiliates, its allies, and its ability to inspire homegrown terrorists.

The Arab Spring

  • The street protests that sparked uprisings across North Africa and continue in the Middle East are changing the political landscape. The turmoil offers al Qaeda some immediate opportunities, but for the long run, it is not clear how these events will affect either al Qaeda or U.S. counterterrorist efforts.

Al Qaeda's Perception

  • Al Qaeda sees itself engaged in an existential struggle with Western infidels determined to destroy Islam.
  • Al Qaeda sees the United States as weakened economically and weary of a costly war — as the Soviet Union was before its withdrawal from Afghanistan and subsequent collapse.
  • Al Qaeda believes that its superior spiritual commitment will eventually defeat America's superior military technology.

The Situation in Afghanistan

  • Al Qaeda's leaders attribute great importance to Afghanistan because the war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan provided al Qaeda's initial reason for being and because a Taliban victory is the best hope for al Qaeda's survival.
  • Either the United States will develop a less costly military strategy to contain the Taliban for a longer time or it will accept the risks associated with withdrawal from Afghanistan, because the current deployment of forces is politically unsustainable.

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