Strange Defeat

Monday, January 23, 2012
Osama bin Laden stencil
Image credit: 
Bixentro—Licensed under Creative Commons

Talk of strategically defeating Al-Qaeda is all the rage in the White House. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta used the “D-word” last summer. President Obama declared in his counterterrorism 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 became 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 past 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. Here are three reasons.

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.

Core Al-Qaeda’s capabilities started degrading in 2001, when the United States invaded Afghanistan, dismantled training camps, ousted the Taliban, and sent bin Laden running. The CIA has estimated the core group remaining in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region to number fifty to one hundred fighters. The last time bin Laden oversaw a successful operation was in 2005, when Al-Qaeda struck the London transit system.

Osama bin Laden stencil
A stenciled image of Osama bin Laden, covered by handbills and graffiti, glowers from a wall in Bucharest, Romania.

But plots by homegrown and franchise groups have risen dramatically in recent years. The 2009 Fort Hood shooting, the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, was the work of a homegrown terrorist. The “mastermind” of the 2010 Times Square car bomb plot was a naturalized American citizen trained by the Pakistani Taliban, not Al-Qaeda. Another franchise group, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was behind the foiled 2009 Christmas Day underwear bomber airliner plot and the 2010 plot to explode tampered printer cartridges aboard cargo planes. The Bipartisan Policy Center reported eleven violent Islamist terrorist incidents against the U.S. homeland in 2009, the most since 9/11. Nearly all involved what former CIA Director Mike Hayden calls “a witches’ brew” of radicalized Americans and franchise groups.

The second reason that talk of defeat is premature has to do with weapons. Terrorism against Americans is nothing new. What’s new is the potential for terrorist groups to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The last time Osama bin Laden oversaw a successful operation was in 2005.

In 1995, a Japanese cult released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway, killing twelve people and injuring thousands. It was the first WMD terrorist attack in modern history, and it sparked a wave of presidential terrorism commissions years before bin Laden became a household name.

It is this specter of the lone fanatic or small group armed with the world’s most devastating weapons that keeps experts up at night. In 2005, sixty leading nuclear scientists and terrorism experts were asked how many believed the odds of a nuclear attack on the United States were negligible. Only three or four hands went up; most were far more pessimistic. Today, there is enough nuclear material to build 120,000 weapons. As long as fissile material is poorly stored and rogue states like Iran and North Korea continue their illicit weapons programs, nuclear terrorism remains a haunting possibility.

As long as fissile material is poorly stored and rogue states exist, nuclear terrorism remains a haunting possibility.

The third reason not to prematurely proclaim defeat is that the FBI has not yet become a first-rate domestic intelligence agency. Analysts, whose work is vital to success, are still second-class citizens, labeled “support staff” alongside secretaries and janitors, and passed over for key jobs, including running the bureau’s intelligence units. The FBI’s information technology is so antiquated that it belongs in a museum, and the old crime-fighting culture lives on. There is a move afoot to shrink new classified facilities so that agents don’t have to “waste time” away from their cases to read intelligence documents there.

“Strategically defeating” Al-Qaeda sounds too good to be true. Because it is.