Al Qaeda is down. Al Qaedism isn't
January 6th, 2014
09:19 AM ET

Al Qaeda is down. Al Qaedism isn't

By Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Andrew Liepman is a former principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center and a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Philip Mudd, former Senior Intelligence Advisor at the FBI and Deputy Director of the CIA Counterterrorist Center, is the director of Global Risk at SouthernSun Asset Management. The views expressed are their own.

The recent New York Times investigation into the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi has reignited the debate over the nature and trajectory of al Qaeda. The conclusion of the report – that there was no evidence of an al Qaeda role in the attack – reinforces our view that the organization that attacked the United States more than 12 years ago is in decline. But it also serves as a reminder that the threat has not disappeared. Rather, it is morphing into a new, more dispersed, less predictable, but still lethal enemy.

The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon showed al Qaeda at its deadliest. At the same time, though, 9/11 also represented the beginning of al Qaeda’s decline as an organized terror enterprise that would ultimately lead to its emergence as a decentralized, factious amalgam of freelance groups, each with its own methods and agenda. This new organization may lack the infrastructure to plan and carry out attacks like the one that occurred in Benghazi (and certainly attacks like 9/11), but today’s al Qaeda remains a threat to strike where and when it can and to fan the flames of extremism.

The decade that followed the 9/11 attack saw the gradual decline of bin Laden’s core al Qaeda. The architects of 9/11 were largely killed or detained, the remnants were in hiding in Pakistan, and the revolutionary message had lost ground globally in the face of relentless al Qaeda killings of Muslims across the Islamic world. Some of its most promising potential successors experienced similar declines, from Jemaah Islamiyya in Indonesia to al-Shabaab in Somalia, along with al Qaeda cells in Saudi Arabia and Europe.

But what of the current generation of Salafist militants – the offspring of bin Laden’s al Qaeda? For them, the signs may not be so bleak. Though they may lack the organizational structure, the focus on attacking the West and the charismatic leadership of yesterday’s al Qaeda killers, today’s militants do not lack its homicidal audacity.  Or its wide reach.

More from CNN: Would NSA surveillance have stopped 9/11?

Affiliated groups have risen across the Middle East and South Asia and into Africa and Europe. Homegrown plots have emerged in the United States in Europe, carried out by individuals zealously donning the al Qaeda mantle, even with little or no contact with terror networks. And the killing hasn’t stopped. Indeed, in many areas of the Middle East, murder in al Qaeda’s name is sharply increasing. In Iraq, Shia are being murdered at a shocking rate. In Pakistan, Shia are frequent targets and across the Middle East groups inspired by bin Laden’s old message continue to sacrifice innocents – from mall shoppers in Kenya and a teacher in Benghazi, to students in Nigeria and oil workers in Algeria. These are the victims of the new breed of al Qaeda terrorists.

So we have conflicting trends. In broad strategic terms, al Qaeda is diminished. Numerous acts of terror against the United States have been prevented. It is clear that the American homeland is safer than it was, and it’s hard to conceive of a 9/11-style attack occurring today. At the same time, though, this emerging generation of militants poses its own threat to regional stability.  We would be remiss if we assumed this jihadi phoenix could never rise again to threaten American cities.

America’s attention span tends to be shorter than that of its adversaries. Americans may evaluate the changing terror landscape as they would the NASDAQ stock exchange, defining success by watching swings over a month or even a year. For al Qaeda, success is something that is defined over decades, or even centuries.

Looking at the landscape through this lens might yield a different picture, one that offers hope to the current generation of Salafist extremists. From this perspective, the al Qaeda cause has endured even as the post-9/11 years brought setbacks to its leadership, its globalist message, and many of its affiliates and adherents. But periodic attacks – London, Bali, and even Ft. Hood, Texas – meant the decline was not a linear downward slope.

More from CNN: Al Qaeda's image makeover

The United States has reason to worry, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chairs of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, pointed out recently. Events in the region – the unremitting violence in Syria, the collapse of any authority in Libya, and the continued instability and infighting in Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere – appear to be emboldening al Qaeda sympathizers. Instability in Syria has opened the door for al Qaedists to broaden their sway among oppositionists, and instability in Iraq – and potentially Lebanon – offers further opportunities for radical jihadis.

There are too many breeding grounds. While much of today’s violence is localized  – Yemeni extremists are interested in Yemen, Somalis in Somalia, and Syrians in Syria  – any of these hot spots could become the next launching ground for a resurgence of anti-western targeting. Neither the inevitable decline of al Qaedism nor the rise of disparate al Qaedist groups in Africa and the Middle East is a full picture, though, and frequent assessments and reassessments might suggest that the al Qaeda phenomenon is morphing more quickly than it actually is.

At the same time, the United States can take some comfort in the progress that has been made at home – in the knowledge that a concerted and consistent counterterrorism campaign has made the country safer and largely eliminated the scourge that hatched the 9/11 plot. Because the al Qaeda revolutionary ideology is so resonant and resilient, the United States should be cautious about translating this comfort into a judgment that it is out of the woods. The picture is neither as positive as it looked even two years ago, nor as bleak as alarmists suggest.

Terror leaders with a target horizon that reaches Europe and the United States are uncommon. Carrying out successful plots against the West requires stout leadership, loyal and focused operatives, and a safe haven to plan without diverting attention to more immediate battles against local security services, other competing groups, or U.S. drones. At the moment, the al Qaeda offshoots do not possess these assets, and America is safer because of that.

At the same time, though, the United States must not allow this fragile sense of security to become complacency. The terrorist threat is still there, morphing over time from local or regional threats to international conspiracies and back again. Measuring progress threat- by-threat, or month by month, would lead to the mistaken belief that tactical gains or losses represent major shifts in this long, painful counterterror campaign. The campaign is a marathon run against a slowly declining revolutionary idea, al Qaedism, which will take many more years to stamp out fully.

The United States should not lose sight of the fact that while 12 years of counterterrorism efforts have helped keep it safe, many more years of vigilance lie ahead. Measuring progress in a counterterrorism war against the al Qaeda group may be straightforward; measuring progress against the morphing idea of al Qaedism isn’t.

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Topics: Terrorism

soundoff (79 Responses)
  1. WERTWERT32452345

    Actually, Al Qaeda was never the force that the right-wing media made it out to be. With it's assets frozen and it's leaders well known to the C.I.A., it is highly dubious that Al Qaeda could have carried out the 9/11 attack on it's own. Today, Al Qaeda has all it can do just to survive. Furthermore, we still do not know whether it was Ussama bin Laden himself or an impostor of his who was murdered back on May 2, 2011 in Pakistan.

    January 6, 2014 at 10:57 am | Reply
    • Trace

      Give it a rest, McCarthy. Your terrorist apologist tactics are as tired as your constant ranting is.

      January 6, 2014 at 3:40 pm | Reply
      • Felix Unger

        Tell me one thing Trace, do you believe that those clowns called the SEAL TEAM 6 actually murdered the true Osama bin Laden or not? Like wertwert above, I too am clueless on that. It seems to me that the true Osama bin Laden died of kidney failure back in 2002 in the mountains of Tora Bora on the Afghan Pakistani border.

        January 6, 2014 at 4:40 pm |
      • VladT

        "It seems to you."

        Well, that's proof enough for me. Damn Obama lying to us.....It "seems to" Felix that Obama was already dead.

        What else is Obama not telling us?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

        January 7, 2014 at 8:55 am |
      • Fred Phred

        It's good to know we have smart fellas like you that can see through all lies and immediately know the truth – all from your couch.

        I know guys like you and they're all the same: Let me guess. You're underachieving. You don't understand why people don't think you're as smart as you know you are. You on the otherhand can see things that nobody else notices. You are like a great detective that just hides in the shadows and gets no credit for understanding the way things REALLY are. No, not you. You're not like them sheep that just believe what they see and hear. Oh how they are all fools..

        I get it. Thanks for the insight.

        January 7, 2014 at 9:42 am |
    • VladT

      Besides your Paranoia Schizophrenic spouting off, is there any proof you can provide? Better make it quick...I see Black Helicopters headed to your place of residence. They're on to you. Run!

      January 7, 2014 at 8:53 am | Reply
      • SnakePlissken

        Instant knowledge of the 2001 perpetrator, the enemy of all mankind. Instant pledge by the 'most powerful man on the planet', to go anywhere, and do anything necessary, to kill that man. Events on 9-11-2001 were far, far, worse than Pearl Harbor, when 15 million Americans were mobilized to flatten and eviscerate ALL opposing nations. Action taken – 9 years later, when we, then and now, possess the capability to turn 500 square miles of Torah Bora and anything else in Afghanistan or Pakistan to glass in seconds. I call BS. Why? Because it is BS.

        January 7, 2014 at 11:47 am |
      • Fred Phred

        Oh and we have another one that is just so much smarter than all of us. Can see right through the deceit. Nobody is fooling SnakePliskin72 – especially from the confines of his mother's basment. It's like his secret batcave where he can view the world as it would be in a movie. Things are never as they appear, right Snake? It's a good thing we have smart guys like you to keep us all from being tricked.

        January 7, 2014 at 12:18 pm |
      • Name*zedave41

        Go get em. Vlad.

        January 7, 2014 at 6:30 pm |
    • sonny chapman

      The Right Wingers do need a boogerman or they no longer can exist. The Commies ain't as scary as they used to be.

      January 7, 2014 at 12:24 pm | Reply
      • Jeff

        true that

        January 7, 2014 at 5:40 pm |
      • Conservative398

        And liberals need to redefine anything that doesn't fit their ideological belief of the world. Islamic fascism is the greatest threat to world peace right now and liberals can't even bring themselves to say the words, and now they will do anything to fit the model of "there is no al-queda and to speak of it is treason."

        January 7, 2014 at 9:37 pm |
    • Conservative398

      Al qaeda and the rest of the islamic Fascist are the biggest threat to world peace at this time and you do anything and everything to diminish their existence. You are not the evolved person you clearly think you are, you are a fool with barbarians at the gate.

      January 7, 2014 at 9:43 pm | Reply
      • Carson Thaler

        Osama bin Laden was a conservative too... just a Muslim Conservative... Ever notice that nearly every mass murderer in history was a conservative? Hitler was a Conservative Socialist. Mao and Stalin were Conservative Communist. Anders Brevik and Bush were Conservative Christians. Sure, the KKK was started under democrats, back when they were conservative. Today, in order to join the KKK, you must be a Republican as it is that party the conservatives rally around. Conservatives are always the last to catch on, being obsessed with their solipsism. It doesn't matter what ideology you hail from. What matters is if you are a Liberal this or a Conservative that...

        January 7, 2014 at 11:43 pm |
      • Conservative398 have no clue what you are talking about, hitler and stalin, and osama bin laden were not conservatives, you clearly have no idea what a conservative is...all three of those would be more alligned progressive fascism.

        January 8, 2014 at 12:06 am |
    • JiggerJones

      The problem is with Muslims in general. Wherever they are, terrorism and destruction naturally follow. Just look at Pakistan for example when it was Hindu majority it was fine, but as Muslims became the majority it became a crap-hole. Egypt used be to be a great country (even in Coptic times), but when Muslims came into the scene it really went downhill there.

      January 7, 2014 at 10:12 pm | Reply
  2. Allan Kinsman

    When it comes to terrorism it is a matter of definition. As long as official foreign policy represents an underlying projection of a covert corporate desires through a lobbyists system in Washington DC we will have an organized resistance. Take for instance Vietnam. Even though the United States had a superior resourses winning a war there was poorly conceived, executed and misdirected. Also true in the middle east. You will never move people forward through force when ancient ideology is challenged through coercion alone. The best you can hope for is to bankrupt yourself which we are accomplishing by a mismanagement of our own narrow minded leadership. There is no surprise to note no serious challenge to middle east foreign policy even with such a failure of result. It is another example of the lack of understanding and imagination from all aspects of government, corporate and media resources in our society.

    January 6, 2014 at 11:40 am | Reply
  3. HeyHey

    As Al Queda takes over another city and sits waiting for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. You school boys failed.

    January 6, 2014 at 2:29 pm | Reply
    • Felix Unger

      They sure did, HeyHey! As long as the general public is stupid enough to support these useless wars that we keep jumping into, who really cares? Certainly not the politicians in Washington!

      January 6, 2014 at 4:45 pm | Reply
  4. Towel Heads

    Towel Heads is what Towel Heads do.

    January 6, 2014 at 4:33 pm | Reply
  5. Billy

    You're Talking About The Bush Administration And The U.S. Government When You Say " Al Qaeda" Right?

    January 7, 2014 at 3:25 am | Reply
    • VladT

      Ah, bipartisnaship ramblings.......its what makes our country, um..."great."

      January 7, 2014 at 8:54 am | Reply
  6. shehar39

    It all depends on what your definition of "IS" is

    January 7, 2014 at 9:59 am | Reply
  7. Prism-D

    The NYT piece was a Fluffer piece for "the Butcher of Benghazi" ...
    Ya could have at least started off with The Truth!
    More political slight's, Lies and Deceit!!

    January 7, 2014 at 10:09 am | Reply
  8. Denny

    I say we stay out of others affairs. Let them all fight amongst themselves. Eventually they will figure it out and there will be accepted social justice in their world. We do not need to be the word's policeman. As far as those who want to directly attack us and our way of life, I say remember we are at war with terrorists. There is a difference between war and justice. Let's not forget that. I do not want to bring any terrorist to justice. I WANT THEM TO DIE FOR THEIR BELEIFS–not be prosecuted or brought to justice. A dead terrorist can not come back ever.

    January 7, 2014 at 10:35 am | Reply
    • anon

      Way to contradict yourself buddy.

      January 7, 2014 at 12:55 pm | Reply
      • Trevor

        I think he's talking about staying out of Muslim v Muslim "internal" fights, we're cleared hot to take out folks we feel are or may pose a threat to our national interests. You may want to re-read his post, buddy.

        January 7, 2014 at 2:36 pm |
  9. jpm224

    Al-Qaeda, or more specifically groups aligned with Al-Qaeda, today control more territory than at any point in the group's history. Two years ago, I would have agreed with the assertion that "Al Qaeda is down" – today, not so much.

    January 7, 2014 at 11:01 am | Reply
    • anonagle

      The article points out that the core group of Al Qaeda is down not the loosely affiliated groups. You must have skipped that paragraph

      January 7, 2014 at 12:57 pm | Reply
  10. Gatordave

    Let's see... a policy analyst at Rand Corporation and director of Global Risk Management consultant are stoking fears of Al Queda. No conflict of interest there, eh?

    January 7, 2014 at 11:06 am | Reply
  11. j. von hettlingen

    If the author speaks of "Al-Qaedism", he might as well spell out the word "Wahhabism". The Saudi government claimed that it had no control over the funds that flew to the Taliban and jihadists, and that they came from private individuals and foundations. It clamped down on extremist elements but didn't ban the spread of Wahhabism.
    Now for the first time in recent history, the US and Iran face the same enemies: the Jihadists, who as Sunni fanatics, see Shia Muslims as heretics. The war in Syria didn't start as a sectarian conflict, it has become one now and its spillover effect is deeply felt in Lebanon and Iraq.

    January 7, 2014 at 11:08 am | Reply
  12. palintwit

    We arrive in rusty 1964 motorhomes.
    We bring our bibles and loaded assault weapons.
    We wear ridiculous clothing and have teabags dangling from our earlobes.
    We carry misspelled racist signs as we stomp all over the White House lawn.
    We eat Chick-fil-A and wash it down with Everclear.
    We are Sarah Palin's real Americans.
    We love the baby jesus but we love to boink our cousins even more.
    We believe that the earth is only 6,000 years old and that early man walked with the dinosaurs.
    We believe that nascar is a real sport and that Dale Earnhardt was a great American athlete.
    We are the birthers. We are tea party patriots.
    We are bigots and inbreds. We are morons and we are proud.

    January 7, 2014 at 12:16 pm | Reply
    • anon

      You do realize that you yourself are partaking in ignorance and bigotry.

      January 7, 2014 at 12:52 pm | Reply
  13. sonny chapman

    The Confusion over International el quida & Local el quida will lead to many missteps, erroneous conclusions & ineffective tactics. Like in the Cold War, except we already had our Vietnam in the Invasion & attempted Occupation(Oil & Military Bases) in Iraq & the bumbling in Afghanistan.

    January 7, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Reply
  14. Jon doe

    AL Queada is evolving. Not to metion they do not need constant attack to keep us on edge one attack every 10 years is more than enough to freak people out. The threat is as successful as an attack. Also outsourcing is huge. Open source terrorism. Sort of like Googles philosophy.

    January 7, 2014 at 12:33 pm | Reply
  15. saywhat

    It has been admitted that AlQaeda has increased its franchise during the prosecution of this " war on terror'. In the M.East, particularly in Yemen, Libya, Syria and Iraq they have expanded and consolidated, they are expanding in N.Africa.
    An org of handful of thugs that could have been eliminated by a focused, law enforcement covert op in Afghanistan has been aided to become a global menace, thanks to our policies.Iraq and Afghanistan full scale invasions and occupation was the beginning.
    Then the Talibans offered twice to hand over Osama Bin Laden to the S thru a third country in 2001 which that 'great and wise' (God!) leader G.W rejected outrightly. The rest as they say is unfortunate history still unfolding 12 yrs on.
    They were never capable of 9/11 attacks , much as they would have wanted to. And a study of the summary of US 9/11 Commission establishes that.

    January 7, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Reply
  16. Stephen

    Four people are gunned down or die in a preventable accident back home in the U.S., and it gets 10 minutes of news coverage. Four people die overseas off of U.S. soil and in a region with a lot of unrest, and it's a 4 yr story. In addition, our nation, our economy, our debt, and our amount of drug & alcohol addiction and obesity, should outweigh our activities abroad. Yet it does not. For some reason, the U.S. just won't accept the idea that WE can no longer control policy in the Middle East. And that logic is dysfunctional & ill advised. I'm more an optimist: Lead and others will follow! We need to trust this process, while at the same time work to head off dev & use of WMDs.

    January 7, 2014 at 12:44 pm | Reply
  17. Steve

    I thought fear tactics was a bad tv show, not CNN commentary.

    January 7, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Reply
  18. saywhat

    Failed and costly militarism both in terms of national treasure and tens of thousands of lives , is our continuing malady. We refuse to learn. Dwight D.Eisenhour back in the sixties had warned this nation with foresight, of the plight of militarism and control of MIC.
    9/11 was the "Pearl Harbor' Bush-Cheney needed to push this nation towards the path which has been a continuous slide down.

    January 7, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Reply
  19. Syd Chaden

    The issue may simply be one of terminology.
    Al Queda has been decimated, and is on the run, and so, the people who are killing today, shouting "Allah Akbar", aren't Al Queda, they are "militants". I know that, because Obama has said so. The "militants" who are currently killing people in Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Sudan, Nigeria, Lebanon and Syria are a "tiny minority". I know that, because Obama has said so. The people who are doing the killing are Muslims, acting in accordance with the Islamic doctrine of "death to infidels". The people being killed are also Muslims, but, they are Muslims who other Muslims consider to be "infidels". The two major branches of Islam, the Sunnis and the Shia, each consider the other to be infidels, and they have been killing each other for centuries, for that reason. However, Islam is the religion of love. I know that because Obama has said so.
    And so, the issue is simply one of terminology. Whereas some may say that thousands of Muslims are being killed by Al Queda in Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Sudan, Nigeria, Lebanon and Syria in accordance with the Islamic doctrine of "death to infidels", Obama says that Al Queda has been decimated and is on the run, Islam is the religion of love, and the killing is the work of a "tiny minority".
    It is just a matter of terminology.

    January 7, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Reply
  20. Andrey

    al-Qaeda has got whole countries now for its breeding grounds, and their resources at its disposals. American "War on Terror" and its own "al-Qaeda Spring" (or an "Arab Spring" as Western liberal sheep like calling it) were the best two things that happened to it so far. So, right, al-Qaeda is down: sweet dreams happy fools!

    January 7, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Reply
  21. herchato

    The democrats and the republicans need the terrorist to keep us distracted so that they can carry out the changes that they need to make for big business.

    January 7, 2014 at 4:05 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Well put, herchato. How true that is!

      January 7, 2014 at 7:24 pm | Reply
  22. Dave in IL

    If it's not directly planned and executed by Ayman al-Zawahiri, according to the Obama Administration, "What difference does it make"?

    January 7, 2014 at 4:28 pm | Reply
  23. Rafael Amaral

    Esta guerra está longe de acabar.. Infelismente.

    January 7, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Acuerdo con Ud., Rafael. Esta actual guerra in Irak ya no nos corresponde. Quedemosnos afuera de esta asqueroso conflicto esta vez, por favor.

      January 7, 2014 at 7:21 pm | Reply
  24. Ricky

    The US doesn't have a W Bush class dumbell for president anymore, so they will probably actually pay attention to the threats they receive.

    January 7, 2014 at 5:45 pm | Reply
  25. Richard LaPlant

    Al-Qaeda is confused. They don't know that Jesus is the true Son of The Living God, and everything Jesus ever said is 100% true.
    I love the Muslims enough to try to save them and help them to go to Heaven be accepting Jesus Christ as Savior of all people on earth.

    January 7, 2014 at 7:43 pm | Reply
    • DR

      Are you sure that's not Santa Claus you're thinking of? Just as ridiculous either way...god is a myth perpetuated by the weak, the stupid, and the too easily manipulated. Make sure you say your prayers or your god will murder you in your sleep...

      January 7, 2014 at 8:22 pm | Reply
    • Nick G

      Christian dogma states that God created the heavens, the earth, everything in it, and all living beings...THEN became a man who ate, slept, fell on his face in prayer, and was crucified. Trinity is an innovation, a nonsensical one at that, introduced by a pagan emperor during the council of Nicea.

      January 8, 2014 at 2:03 am | Reply
  26. Richard LaPlant

    Al-Qaida, please learn about Jesus and accept Jesus as your Savior so you can go to Heaven too.

    January 7, 2014 at 7:46 pm | Reply
    • Tell the TRUTH

      That is only way for a better world and eternal heaven hereafter.

      January 7, 2014 at 11:11 pm | Reply
  27. DR

    Who needs the so called "terrorists" when we have "law enforcement", they've killed more American's over the past 12 years then Al Qaeda ever did.

    January 7, 2014 at 8:20 pm | Reply
  28. Muslim

    Are you mad you have your religion and we are full muslims saying
    ((( Ash hadu an laa ilaaha ila laah muxamad rasuulu laah )))
    who is write jhe crist and juwsh please answer

    the fight between muslims and american soldiers and his freinds pakistan afgan saudi france uk and so manny african governments wich supporting US allah nows

    January 7, 2014 at 8:49 pm | Reply
  29. Tell the TRUTH

    As long as people for Quran and Mohammad Al-Quadism will never go away.

    January 7, 2014 at 11:09 pm | Reply
  30. Nick G

    The leadership of Al Qaeda as it existed in 2001 has been taken down. But what do you call members of "Al Qaeda of Arabian Penninsula", ISIS who pledge obedience to Zawahiri, and the like? Funny, I read an article two days ago...stating they thought Al Qaeda was taken down, but it's proven otherwise.

    How about we compartmentalize the issues;

    First attacks on US; How many suicide bombers does Zawihiri need to carry out an attack? Do they have the manpower? Another idiot underwear bomber? Yes.

    Second their objectives of jihad and establishing an Islamic State;

    We've seen a massive rise of groups in Syria, along with Al Shabaab, and "affiliates" who are fighting towards this objective. Does it really matter if we call them Al Qaeda?

    January 8, 2014 at 2:14 am | Reply
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