Talk of strategically defeating Al Qaeda is all the rage in theWhite House these days. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta used the "D-word" in July. President Obama declared in his new counter-terrorism strategy, "We can say with growing confidence… that we have put Al Qaeda on the path to defeat." Compared to the woeful state of the economy, terrorism has become the administration's feel-good story of the year.
"Defeat" is a big word. It is also dangerously misleading. Yes, the United States has made great strides in the last decade to harden targets, improve intelligence and degrade the capabilities of violent Islamist extremists. Osama bin Laden's death was a major accomplishment. But the fight is nowhere close to being won, and America's most perilous times may lie ahead. Three reasons explain why.
The first is that strategically defeating Al Qaeda is not nearly as important as it sounds. After 9/11, Al Qaeda morphed into a more complicated, decentralized and elusive threat consisting of three elements: core Al Qaeda; affiliates or franchise groups operating in places like Yemen and Somalia with loose ties to the core group; and homegrown terrorists inspired by violent extremism, often through the Internet in the comfort of their own living rooms.