Terrorism experts inside and outside the government have been caught up in a debate about how close we may be to defeating al Qaeda and associated groups. As events have demonstrated so vividly in recent years, we are living in an era of continuous surprise, making this one of those questions that cannot be answered with confidence.
What can be said with absolute confidence is that today’s al Qaeda is fundamentally different from the one we knew for years. It has evolved from the hierarchical organization of September 2001 into what might be called a “network of networks.”
Interconnected, loosely-structured organizations are run by a series of al Qaeda affiliates scattered across the arc of South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Some declare fealty to Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, while others merely take inspiration from the legacy his organization represents.
The objective of this kind of [safe zones] project may be described as fundamentally humanitarian, but the reality is that any number of parties, starting with the Assad regime and the Islamic State, are going to see it as a threat, and that’s going to make it a target instead of a safe place.