Hey, remember Al Qaeda? I wonder if the group responsible for that extra-special pat-down* I got at Logan earlier this week is still capable of serious power projection.
Peter Bergen in Vanity Fair provides one answer:
[I]t is not the West that faces an existential threat, but al Qaeda. About two months after 9/11, bin Laden boasted to a group of supporters, "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse." The weak horse turned out to be bin Laden's own. During the past decade, misguided actions taken in the name of the War on Terror -- notably the invasion of Iraq, the bungled war in Afghanistan, and the heavy-handed approach to the treatment of prisoners -- have bought bin Laden and his allies some time. These actions have won a certain amount of sympathy among Muslims for the Islamist cause. But they have not changed the underlying reality: al Qaeda and groups that share its ideology are on the wrong side of history…
Before 9/11, the group had acted freely in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda conducted its own foreign policy independent from the Taliban, taking the form, beginning in 1998, of multiple strikes on American government, military, and civilian targets. Before 9/11, al Qaeda was an organization of global reach. The 9/11 attack itself played out around the world, with planning meetings in Malaysia, operatives taking flight lessons in the United States, coordination by plot leaders based in Hamburg, and money transfers from Dubai -- activities overseen by al Qaeda's senior command from secure bases in Afghanistan. Almost all of this infrastructure was smashed after 9/11.
One of bin Laden's key goals is to bring about regime change in the Middle East and to replace the House of Saud and the Mubarak family of Egypt with Taliban-style rule. He believes that the way to accomplish this is to attack the "far enemy" (the United States and its Western allies), then watch as America recoils and the U.S.-backed Muslim regimes regarded as the "near enemy" collapse. The attacks on Washington and New York resulted in the direct opposite of his hopes. After 9/11, American troops occupied two Muslim countries and established new bases in several others. Relations between the United States and the authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes became stronger than ever, based on a shared goal of defeating violent Islamists…
[C]itizens in the West must come to understand -- and their leaders must drive the point home -- that although terrorist attacks, including attacks by al Qaeda, will continue to happen, the real damage is done by the panic and lashing out that follows. This is the reaction that al Qaeda craves -- and it is why terrorism works. It's easy to understand the emergence of a culture of paranoia coupled with rhetoric of vengeance. Prudence, calmness, and patience seem almost pusillanimous by comparison. But they work. Rare is the threat that can be defeated in large measure simply by deciding that we will not unduly fear it. Terrorism is one such threat (emphasis added).
Above all, we need to keep al Qaeda in perspective, remembering that its assets are few, and shrinking. After 9/11, bin Laden employed the imagery of a strong horse and a weak horse, but the reality of his situation was better described by Sitting Bull. The Sioux leader, at the Little Bighorn, is said to have observed: We have won a great battle but lost a great war.
Well, even if the U.S. and Arab governments are more closely allied now, surely Al Qaeda has more sympathizers on the Arab street, yes? Oh, wait, what's this Pew poll saying here?
While views of Hamas and Hezbollah are mixed, al Qaeda -- as well as its leader, Osama bin Laden -- receives overwhelmingly negative ratings in nearly all countries where the question was asked. More than nine-in-ten (94 percent) Muslims in Lebanon express negative opinions of al Qaeda, as do majorities of Muslims in Turkey (74 percent), Egypt (72 percent), Jordan (62 percent) and Indonesia (56 percent). Only in Nigeria do Muslims express positive views of al Qaeda; 49 percent have a favorable view and just 34 percent have an unfavorable view of bin Laden's organization.
Hmm… well, I'm sure that U.S. government officials aren't this equanimous about the threat posed by Al Qaeda. Oh, hey, look, Wired's Spencer Ackerman has a write-up of this speech by the director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC):
"We aim for perfection," Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Center for Strategic and International Studies yesterday, but "perfection will not be achieved." That's perilous for a senior counterterrorism official to say, since, like terrorism, it's easily demagogued. Leiter repeatedly stated that there's no excuse for terrorism; that any successful attack is a tragedy; and that he'd welcome due oversight and criticism of his efforts if a terrorist pulls something off, just in case his admission seemed self-serving.
But in order not to make terrorists seem "ten feet tall" -- in other words, inadvertently support their narrative that they're world-historical forces on par with the U.S. -- it might be time to publicly de-emphasize terrorism in the public discourse. "Sometimes we ought to just talk about this a lot less," Leiter said....
Ultimately, Leiter said, it'll be the "quiet, confident resilience" of Americans after a terrorist attack that will "illustrate ultimately the futility of terrorism." That doesn't mean not to hit back: Leiter quickly added that "we will hold those accountable [and] we will be ready to respond to those attacks." But it does mean recognizing, he said, that "we help define the success of an attack by our reaction to that attack."
I know that assessing the capabilities of terrorist networks is sometimes a no-win exercise, but isn't it about time to acknowledge that Al Qaeda is no longer in the first tier of national security threats? And that maybe, just maybe, really expensive incursions related to Al Qaeda should be reassessed?
Am I missing anything?
[So how extra-special was that pat-down? -- ed. I was hurt that the TSA guy didn't tell me his first name afterwards. Seriously, I'm stunned that the porn industry has yet to exploit this new scenario for "intimate contact."]
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.