This paper presents an assessment of America’s continuing campaign to defeat al Qaeda and other groups that constitute the jihadist galaxy.1 The subject itself is a moving target. Farreaching developments have occurred since the beginning of 2011, the implications of which are not yet clear. Nor will the action stop to permit more than a snapshot of the changing political landscape. There is considerable debate about where America and its principal foes stand at the moment and numerous scenarios that can be projected for the future—none, however, with great confidence. In the final analysis, this is a personal view.
Ten years after 9/11, there is a remarkable lack of consensus among analysts’ assessments of al Qaeda’s current condition. Officials in Washington say that al Qaeda is “on the ropes,” the United States is “within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda,” that al Qaeda’s core could be degraded to a mere “propaganda arm” within 18 to 24 months.2 These are bold claims. While agreeing that al Qaeda is weaker than it was in 2001, others warn that it still poses a serious terrorist threat.3
Those who argue that al Qaeda remains a serious threat—some asserting that it is perhaps more dangerous now than it was on 9/11—base their assessments on several factors. Al Qaeda’s periphery remains strong, even though its center has been hollowed. The West has lost the ideological battle. Al Qaeda’s allies increasingly embrace its ideology of global struggle. Where there were once organizational boundaries, there is now fluidity among the jihadist groups. Al Qaeda continues to radicalize and recruit homegrown terrorists.
1 The assessment expands upon briefings that were presented to federal judges meeting in Elkhorn, Montana, August 28, 2011; at the Manhattan Institute’s Tenth Anniversary Conference on Terrorism, held in New York, September 7, 2011; to the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, September 14, 2011; to NATO ambassadors meeting in Brussels on September 23, 2011; to members of Congress at the Aspen Institute’s Conference on Policy Changes in the Muslim World in Barcelona, Spain, on September 27, 2011; to the RAND Center for Global Risk and Security Advisory Board in Santa Monica, Calif., on October 24, 2011; and at meetings of various senior law enforcement officials during September and October, 2011.
2 “U.S. Counterterror Chief [John Brennan]: Al Qaeda Now on the Ropes,” 2011; “[CIA Director Leon] Panetta Says Defeat of Al Qaeda Is ‘Within Reach,’” 2011; “Al Qaeda Core Can Be Reduced to Mere Propaganda Arm in 2 Yrs: US,” quoting Michael Vickers, Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, 2011.
3 For example, the views expressed in Byman, 2011; Gartenstein-Ross, 2011; Riedel, 2011. See also “Statement by the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency David H. Petraeus to Congress on the Terrorist Threat Ten Years After 9/11,” 2011.