No big Al Qaeda attack has taken place since the May 2 killing of Osama Bin Laden. The organization has lost quite a few biggies. Its operations are in shambles. It is merely attempting to survive rather than expand and attack.
In recent times, several such assessments have emerged from the United States pointing at a newfound ability among the US to strategically defeat the Al Qaeda, once and for all.
Leon E. Panetta, who took over as US defense secretary on July 1, affirmed that American focus has narrowed to capturing or killing 10 to 20 crucial leaders of the terrorist group in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
And within less than a month of Panetta’s declaration, a more forceful pronouncement has surfaced. Media reports quoting unnamed CIA sources now indicate that only “a relatively small number of additional blows could effectively extinguish” the Al Qaeda. According to these new assessments, 1,200 Al Qaeda militants have been killed since 2004 and 224 have been killed this year alone.
Such killings have resulted in the elimination of a “number of generations of leaders.” Although regional terrorist organizations may still remain relevant and retain potency of carrying on, violence by Al Qaeda proper “as the global, borderless, united jihad” may end soon.
This new wave of confidence, however, is contrasted by the trends identified by several other threat assessments of the Al Qaeda.
Firstly, Al Qaeda’s core leadership and structure is intact in Pakistan. Ayman al-Zawahiri is suspected to be hiding in Pakistan’s mountainous tribal regions. However, given the state of US–Pakistan relations in recent times, attempts to get these top leaders would prove difficult. This provides the leadership a fair chance to survive and resuscitate.
Second, Al Qaeda continues to be supported by rouge regimes and will, thus, continue to survive the US military onslaughts. Iran has been accused by the US of aiding Al Qaeda. On July 28, documents filed by the US Treasury Department accused Iran of facilitating an Al Qaeda run support network that transfers large amounts of cash from Middle East donors to Al Qaeda’s top leadership in Pakistan’s tribal region. In earlier times, Washington has accused Tehran of supporting militias inside Iraq that carry out attacks against the American forces.
Third, a chemical or biological attack by Al Qaeda and its offshoots remains a valid threat. Mike Leiter, who retired as director of the US National Counterterrorism Center early July, has said that despite the killing of terror leader Osama bin Laden there are “pockets of Al Qaeda around the world who see” using chemical and biological weapons “as a key way to fight us, especially the offshoot in Yemen.” While this may not kill lot of people, the new breed of terrorists understands that killing a few Americans can cause as much fear as the massive plots bin Laden backed.
Fourth, a substantial number of US citizens have developed links with the Al Qaeda and they may prove to be assets for the terrorist organization within the US homeland. A recent US congressional report has indicated that the Somalia based al-Shabab has recruited 40 Muslim Americans and 20 Canadians to be part of its terrorist campaign in the African country. Fifteen of these have been killed and the rest are still active. There is a possibility that all US individuals who have developed al-Shabab links during their trips to Somalia have not been identified and they may well return to the US undetected.
And lastly, even if we are to accept that the Al Qaeda is disintegrating into regional organizations with limited reach that brings no respite to the US and other countries. The failed plot to blow up an explosives-packed vehicle in Times Square in May 2010 was carried out by a Pakistani-American trained by the Pakistani Taliban.
According to earlier reports, the AQAP is prodding the al-Shabab to take up responsibility for carrying out attacks on the US interests beyond the Somalian territory. This probably resulted in the twin suicide attacks in Uganda in 2010 killing 79 people. More such future attacks can not be ruled out. The July 22 Norway attacks demonstrated that capacity of a lone self-radicalized terrorist can equal or even surpass the efforts of an organized global terrorist outfit.
Interestingly, all these trends are derived from various recent assessments of the US intelligence and certainly are not wisdom that the US government is unaware of.
What then explains the inordinate hurry to declare a military victory against the Al Qaeda? Assuming that the assessments of Al Qaeda’s possible extinction are sourced from real CIA sources, these constitute a deliberate effort on part of the agency to add few more feathers to the cap of President Obama, the slayer of Osama bin Laden. It successful, it will further ease the rather difficult process of pulling the US troops out of Afghanistan, even when the Taliban violence is on ascendancy. And all this will further boost up Obama’s re-election bid in 2012.
But in the end, it all amounts to complacency, even if of the self-imposed variety. It may be good for Barack Obama’s future in the White House. However, it may also turn out to be beneficial for all the Ayman al-Zawahiris and Abu Yahya al-Libis in their respective hideouts.
Somebody, thus, has to stand up and tell the world that notwithstanding the bravado the US has started putting up in recent times, “The Base” has not crumbled, not yet.
Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray is an independent analyst based in Singapore and has previously been Deputy Director, India’s National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS). Currently, he is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi and a Fellow (Counter-Insurgency Studies) at the Takshashila Institution. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @BibhuRoutray