Nine years after the most devastating attack on the American homeland by a foreign power since the British army burned Washington in 1814, al Qaeda remains alive and deadly. President Obama has placed considerable pressure on Osama bin Laden and his gang but they are a remarkably adaptive and resilient foe.
Al Qaeda today has five faces. The first is the old face, the core group around bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, which still provides strategic direction to the group and to the larger jihadist community. Despite the largest manhunt in human history, the core is still operational in the badlands along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The drone offensive Obama has ordered is hurting them seriously, but it has not destroyed them. They usually mark the anniversary of 9/11 with a major propaganda statement so we should expect one.
Second is the syndicate of terror networks aligned with al Qaeda either openly or covertly in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pakistani Taliban, responsible for the failed Times Square attack last May, is openly allied with bin Laden; Lashkar-e-Taiba, which attacked Mumbai almost two years ago, is more clandestinely aligned with al Qaeda. The two worked together on a plot to attack Denmark late last year which was foiled when the FBI arrested an American, David Headley, who worked for both. The Afghan Taliban remains al Qaeda’s essential partner in Afghanistan. The syndicate is not a monolith, but operationally it works together closely—as was the case with the deadly attack on the CIA base in Khost on December 31, 2009. That was a joint al Qaeda, Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban operation. This network of allies is a major force multiplier for al Qaeda today.
The third face of al Qaeda is its regional franchises around the Islamic world from the Maghreb to Indonesia. The one in Yemen is the most dangerous today and staged the Christmas day attack on Detroit. Across the Gulf of Aden, al Qaeda’s protégés in Somalia are also an increasing danger to other parts of Africa, as they demonstrated during the World Cup in Uganda. Even the much diminished franchise in Iraq continues to strike periodically. Al Qaeda has learned from the mistakes of its franchises in the past and adapted. In Iraq, al Qaeda tried to take over the Sunni insurgency and was rebuffed. In Pakistan and Afghanistan today, the terror group lets the local Taliban lead the war effort while its members stay in the shadows.
Then there are the self-starting jihadists who often have no formal linkages to al Qaeda but can be very deadly. The Fort Hood massacre was the work of one such individual, another American. Sometimes these self-starters get in touch with al Qaeda, usually in Pakistan or Yemen, and offer themselves as potential bombers. Last September three Americans, led by an Afghan-American named Najibullah Zazi, were trained by al Qaeda in Pakistan to build bombs and planned to blow themselves up on the New York City subway system a few days after the anniversary. Two of the three have now confessed to the plot. Had the FBI not been on their trail, the eighth anniversary of 9/11 would be remembered as a nightmare.
Finally there is the idea, the narrative and ideology of al Qaeda. First conceived by bin Laden and a long dead Palestinian partner named Abdallah Azzam back in the 1980s during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the idea is global jihad, a war against the United States and its allies to be waged across the planet using suicide martyrs and bleeding wars to force America to get out of the Islamic world and abandon Israel to destruction. Al Qaeda still names operations in memory of Azzam; most recently an alleged attack on an oil tanker in the Straits of Hormuz was named for him.
The idea is now in many ways independent of the group that created it. Obama has been attacking the idea of al Qaeda from Day One, with his speeches in Turkey and Egypt, his peace initiative in Palestine, and his efforts to reach out to the great majority of Muslims who reject al Qaeda and all that it stands for. Indeed, only a very small minority of Muslims believes in global jihad but even a handful of determined suicidal murderers can change the fate of nations. We all learned that nine years ago.