Is al Qaeda Really on the Ropes?

The reported killing of another Qaeda commander in Pakistan earlier this week demonstrates the pressure the U.S. is putting on the terrorists there. But does it also mean that al Qaeda’s core is on the verge of collapse, as some suggest? There the picture is much more complicated.

Abu Hafs al-Shahri, a Saudi, had been a Qaeda operative for years. According to Saudi media accounts, he operated in Syria for several years before moving to Pakistan. He is alleged to have been chief of operations for al Qaeda in Pakistan when he died. His demise comes after the death of Osama bin Laden in May and the recovery of a library of data from his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The exploitation of that library has clearly been a great boon to counterterrorist operations. Senior Qaeda officials like Muhammad Ilyas Kashmiri and Atiyah Abd al-Rahman have reportedly been killed since then, and at least one, a Mauritanian, has been captured by the Pakistanis.

No one disputes that these attacks are damaging al Qaeda’s old core in Pakistan. Analysts inside and outside the government are divided, however, on how badly this weakens al Qaeda’s global threat and even its Pakistan base. Those who argue it is decimating al Qaeda rightly note that the organization has lost its charismatic founder and a bench of key operatives in short order. If the momentum is sustained, al Qaeda’s original order of battle will be dismantled. Often it is argued that al Qaeda has also been ideologically caught off balance by the Arab revolutions, which it had nothing to do with starting. But even the advocates of al Qaeda in decline are usually quick to note that its offshoots in Yemen, North Africa, and other locations are still very dangerous and in some cases getting more so, especially in Yemen, which is heading toward civil war. And all analysts agree al Qaeda’s message still seems to inspire self-radicalized extremists inside the U.S. and Europe who, like the Fort Hood killer, may be very dangerous.

The skeptics note that al Qaeda’s obituary has been announced before, more than once. In the wake of the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, Abu Zubayda, and several other senior Qaeda operatives years ago, we read articles reporting that it was on the verge of defeat. A Washington Post headline in 2003 announced, “Al Qaeda’s Top Primed to Collapse, U.S. Says.” Former Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf said in 2006 that with the U.S., “Pakistan has shattered the al Qaeda network in the region; it has ceased to exist as a homogenous force capable of undertaking coordinated operations.” Of course in March 2003 al Qaeda blew up subway trains in Madrid, killing 191 and wounding 1,755; in July 2005 it blew up trains in London, killing and wounding dozens more—attacks we now know were linked to the Qaeda core in Pakistan. And while Musharraf was proclaiming al Qaeda’s death, Osama bin Laden was living a mile away from the military academy Musharraf graduated from. He has even admitted that as president he jogged past the hideout for several years. So is it different this time?

Ayman Zawahiri, bin Laden’s replacement, took on the issue in an hourlong message released this week by al Qaeda to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The message included previously unseen images of bin Laden and also Zawahiri’s analysis of how the terror group has fared over the past decade. He notes that “Washington, Tel Aviv, and NATO” are claiming we “won and al Qaeda has lost.” His counterargument is that our allies are collapsing all over the Arab world like flies, leaders such as Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi, Ali Abdallah Saleh, Bashar Assad, and next (he promises) the House of Saud, all of whom have been fighting al Qaeda relentlessly for the past decade and helping America kill and capture its leaders. Then, he says, look at the war in Afghanistan, and he highlights the descriptions in Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars of the intense battles inside the White House about whether the war is winnable and the growing calls in America and Europe to get out.

Of course, Zawahiri is a spokesman for his cause and less than objective. But from his perspective, which looks at the global jihad over decades, not days, many of his oldest enemies are gone, and America has pulled out most of its troops from Iraq and is tiring of the Afghan war. Israel’s embassies are shutting down across the Middle East as the Arab spring turns against the Crusader-Zionist alliance. Closer to home, the Pakistani state is under intense pressure from every angle and faces the most serious internal security problems in its history. New terror attacks rock the country from Karachi to Kashmir almost every day.

Zawahiri also knows al Qaeda has powerful friends and allies in Pakistan. He knows what we don’t—who was helping bin Laden hide in Abbottabad for years in the shadow of the Pakistani Army and under the nose of its generals. He knows al Qaeda also gets help from the Pakistan Taliban (which carries out new terror in Pakistani military bases to avenge bin Laden) and from groups like Lashkar e Tayyiba (LeT) that mourned bin Laden’s death as a hero of their jihad. Those groups are not under any of the pressure that al Qaeda faces—LeT still gets support and patronage from the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI. These groups have become further radicalized in the past few years and now target Americans from Times Square to Mumbai. They host al Qaeda and provide it with force multipliers.

One thing is certain. We cannot rely on Pakistan’s government, Army, and ISI to deal with this threat. Whether they were clueless about bin Laden’s hideout for half a decade or complicit in hiding him, we cannot rely on them. Incompetent or worse, they are not reliable. So we need to retain a capability for the foreseeable future to operate inside Pakistan when we need to take out dangerous targets, whether by drones or SEALs. The geography is simple; only Afghanistan offers that base. That doesn’t mean we need 140,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan indefinitely, but we also can’t just cut and run either. Ironically, Pakistan’s unreliability makes Afghanistan more important.