The death of al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden a year ago marks a major milestone in the U.S. war on terrorism that started Sept. 11, 2001. But according to intelligence and defense officials, the war is far from over, and there is still little consensus on whether Bin Laden’s death dealt as big a blow to al-Qaida as previously believed.
In the post-Bin Laden era, the scorecard so far:
Regional al-Qaida Affiliates
The death of Bin Laden created a huge leadership void in al-Qaida, but his teachings and ideology will survive and continue to fuel regional jihadist movements, said Deputy Director for National Intelligence Robert Cardillo. Bin Laden’s replacement Ayman al Zawahiri has not changed al-Qaida’s strategic direction, although his leadership has been far less compelling than Bin Laden’s, Cardillo said in a conference call with reporters. With the new emir unable to exert the centralizing and unifying influence that Bin Laden had, regional al-Qaida affiliates have entered a “critical period,” said Cardillo. During the next two to three years, it will be regional groups that will be conducting the bulk of attacks on Western targets, he said. “There will be multiple voices that will provide inspiration for the movement.”
The affiliate that is the biggest target of U.S. counterterrorism efforts today is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen. Following is al-Qaida in Iraq, and two Africa-based groups: al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Al-Shabab. “These groups will surpass the remnants of the core al-Qaida in Pakistan,” Cardillo said.
U.S. counterterrorism efforts over the past decade have left al-Qaida too weak to mount another 9/11-style attack. An operation of that magnitude being carried out successfully today would “hard to imagine,” a senior U.S. counterterrorism official said. But loosely affiliated al-Qaida followers — radicalized lone wolves or criminals turned jihadists — have seen relative success in recent years, as even minor attacks or kidnappings generate huge headlines and can sway public policy, the U.S. official said April 27. “We’re worried that we’ll see more of that in the future,” the official said.
Africa’s Islamic Maghreb is the most obvious example of an al-Qaida affiliate that is mostly a criminal gang, she noted. It makes millions of dollars ransoming and kidnapping Western hostages, and it teams with local tribes to exploit vulnerabilities in local law enforcement.
It’s now accepted wisdom that criminal organizations are adopting terrorist techniques. “The criminal organizations in Mexico didn't invent the idea of beheading people and putting the videos up on YouTube. They saw others do that but then they adapted it for their own needs,” Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Counternarcotics and Global Threats William Wechsler told a Senate panel in March.
U.S. Special Operations Forces
Navy SEALs cornered and killed Osama Bin Laden May 1, and weeks later rescued hostages who had been held by Somali pirates. Special operations forces, which include Army, Air Force and Marine Corps components, have become key players in the Obama administration’s counterterrorism campaign involving strikes with unmanned drones. The president’s 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance says special operations forces will increasingly be relied upon to "help address national security threats and challenges on a global scale," said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, director of the homeland security and counterterrorism program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
U.S. SOCOM is seeking greater authorities to deploy SOF and launch operations across the globe. “Such authorities would allow SOF capabilities to be brought to bear with greater speed and flexibility in regions such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America,” Nelson said. As the go-to force to combat terrorists, SOCOM is the only major component of the U.S. military that is growing in size and budget.
Former SOCOM Commander retired Adm. Eric Olson said the command was never officially designated the “global synchronizer” of the war on terror. But special operations forces have received new authorities to recommend to U.S. combatant commanders ways to counter a violent extremist threat, Olson said.
Weapons of Mass Destruction
For years, U.S. intelligence forecasts had been warning of potentially devastating attacks on U.S. cities by terrorists armed with biological or chemical weapons. They also had cautioned about the likelihood of low nuclear-yield “dirty bomb” attacks. Such calamitous events are not likely to happen, at least not in a large scale, Cardillo said. “We see a reduced threat of mass casualty attacks via chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapon on the United States,” he said. “A mass casualty attack by a foreign terrorist group is unlikely in the next year.” The reason for the diminished WMD threat is the "counterterrorism pressure we are putting,” said Cardillo. Terrorists’ most viable option conventional explosive devices.
Domestic Law Enforcement Agencies
With the center of al-Qaida power significantly degraded by U.S. strikes, the bigger danger to the United States are lone actors who might go undetected by federal agencies until they try to pull off an attack in an American city. These lone wolves are “truly the most difficult targets we face,” the U.S. counterterrorism official said. “It’s difficult to identify the source of their radicalization.” They could be jihadists or Somali nationalist extremists. That creates a greater burden for U.S. state and local law enforcement, as they would become the first line of defense against these relatively small but potentially high-impact attacks by a single individual or a small gang. As U.S. officials have said, terrorists and criminal organizations are working together in unprecedented ways.
U.S. National Security Strategists
There was a time when intelligence analysts could gaze into their crystal ball and attempt to make predictions. But the war on terror has turned intelligence convention on its head.
Yes, the United States killed Bin Laden. But when will we know that we’ve actually defeated al-Qaida? Nobody has a clue. The organization that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks is essentially gone, but the movement certainly survives. “Al-Qaida is a resilient organization,” the U.S. intelligence official said. Its new leaders are less charismatic but still capable. “I wouldn’t count them out,” he said. “The intent to attack the U.S. still remains.”
Also frustrating to strategists is that while U.S. drone strikes and other operations against al-Qaida might score tactical victories for the United States, they also have become rallying cries for anti-Americanism, which helps al-Qaida affiliates recruit members. The challenge for the United States is “balancing aggressive counterterrorism operations with the risk of exacerbating the anti-Western global agenda and galvanizing new fronts in the movement,” said Cardillo.
After the Bin Laden raid, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta caused a stir when he said that the “strategic defeat of al-Qaida was within reach.” But the U.S. intelligence official said that Panetta’s statement ignores the reality that counterterrorism is “not a science.” Agencies have no “yardstick” that measures precisely the nation’s progress in the war on terror. “It’s really hard to declare victory when you still have active affiliates, you still have propaganda, active networks in the U.K.,” he said. “Ideology lives, the movement is alive and relatively healthy.” Whether the United States prevails “might be more of a question for historians than for analysts.”