War on Al Qaeda Affiliates Succeeding but Long-term Persistence Critical, CIA Vets Say
The United States and its allies are effectively beating back al Qaeda and affiliated movements around the world, but to waver would let the groups quickly regain strength, four senior veterans of the effort said Wednesday
The United States and its allies are effectively beating back al Qaeda and affiliated movements around the world, but to waver would let the groups quickly regain strength, four senior veterans of the effort said at a panel discussion Wednesday on the future of al Qaeda.
“I do believe al Qaeda as an organization is badly damaged. I believe it is in decline,” said Charles Allen, a veteran CIA analyst and former top Department of Homeland Security (DHS) intelligence official, at the event hosted by the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Virginia.
(Watch the video of the discussion, here .)
Former CIA colleague Paul Pillar, now an author and professor at Georgetown University, shared Allen’s assessment, but noted that al Qaeda “still has the potential to do some significant damage.
Pillar prefaced his remarks by differentiating between core al Qaeda—gutted by military and intelligence operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan but still a threat—and the organizations around the world that share its goals and in some cases its brand: Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia, Abu Sayyef in the Philippines, Somalia’s al Shabaab, Yemen's al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Northern Africa.
Fellow former CIA analyst and FBI official Philip Mudd of the New America Foundation explained that al Qaeda and other organizations are not hierarchical, but instead resemble a fabric. Targeted attacks have killed many core al Qaeda leaders, metaphorically ripping out individual threads and fraying the organization. Let be, al Qaeda and other groups can “re-weave” themselves.
All panelist agreed that the leadership losses to the CIA's drone war have exacted a huge toll on al Qaeda, with leaders vastly harder to replace than foot soldiers.
The threat that primarily concerns Pillar is a demonstrated one: home-grown terrorists like alleged extremists Nidal Malik Hasan and Faisal Shahzad, which Pillar and fellow panelists refer to as “like-mindeds” based on their relationship to foreign groups. These types actors make up for their amateurism with their willingness to die carrying out attacks, he said.
Allen, a consultant with the Chertoff Group, noted that radical Muslim-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who communicated from Yemen with Hasan and likely influenced Shahzad and alleged Christmas Day bomber Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, “Is not giving his regular Friday night Internet lectures. He is on the run.”
But al-Awlaki has made his mark as a recruiter and radicalizer, Allen said, adding, “I can’t overstate the power of the Internet in fueling radicalization.”
Tempering those warnings, Allen said that, “I don’t think we should get overexcited about the state of Muslim-Americans.” Yet he offered another qualifier. Young, second-generation Americans whose families retain familial and social ties overseas bear an elevated, and demonstrated risk of radicalization. Apprehensions of radicals in war zones overseas, and forensic evidence, has found that jihadis abroad had previously been arrested for criminal offenses in the United States, according to a 2008 article in The Washington Post.
Fourth panelist Steven Simon of the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at Princeton University, warned against viewing the war against terror as solely a fight against religious extremism. The West must also weigh anti-colonialism as a factor, he said.
Pillar said he shares a view with French terrorism scholar Gilles Kepel that society is “on the downhill slope” of the fight against terrorism, but also noted that Keppel made that same assessment shortly before 9-11.
♦ Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force/DefenseLink