June 9, 2008 8:12 pm

Down but dangerous: how al-Qaeda has been pushed on to the defensive

Bin Laden placards

Between 1998 and 2001, the US suffered three serious terrorist attacks: against its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; against the USS Cole, a warship docked in Aden, in 2000; and, most devastatingly, against New York and Washington on September 11 2001. Since then, nothing.

In Europe, an easier target because of its more open borders, there have been only two successful attacks: in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005.

Michael McConnell, the US director of national intelligence, told Congress as recently as February that al-Qaeda was attracting an influx of western recruits and said the terror group continued to pose significant threats to the US at home and abroad. But in the months since, evidence has been mounting that the organisation responsible for the September 11 attacks has suffered some serious reversals. What follows is an examination of that evidence.

Exhibit one in the case is al-Qaeda’s recent failure to mount successful attacks on western targets. The group has not lost the ability to launch such attacks. On the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and in parts of the Middle East, it also remains potent. But unless it shows the capacity to sustain a tempo of attacks on western targets or demonstrates a capability with biological or nuclear weapons, it is hard to describe it as the strategic threat that it was once widely thought to constitute.

“We know that al-Qaeda has demonstrated weakness because there has not been an attack on the US for 6½ years. That is a fact – so the threat must be kept in context,” says Michael Sheehan, former deputy commissioner responsible for counter­terrorism at the New York City Police Department. “There could be an attack tomorrow, but an attack every 6½ years in the US does not constitute a strategic threat ... They need to get a WMD or sustain conventional attacks to constitute a true strategic threat to the US, although they remain a regional problem in Pakistan-Afghanistan and Iraq.”

This assessment is supported by a little-noticed reference in the UK’s new national security strategy, published in March: “While terrorism represents a threat to all our communities and an attack on our way of life, it does not at present amount to a strategic threat. But it is qualitatively and quantitatively more serious than terrorist threats we have faced in the past, and it is likely to persist for many years.”

Mr Sheehan, author of Crush the Cell: How to Defeat Terrorism Without Terrorizing Ourselves, says al-Qaeda’s success depends on provoking a disproportionate reaction from its targets. “Terrorism is an instrument of the weak and al-Qaeda is dependent on a psychological overreaction from the west and particularly the US ... Al-Qaeda is weakened but it is still dangerous because of its unrestrained intent to kill in large numbers.”

Peter Clarke, a former head of the Metropolitan Police’s anti-terrorism branch, told a conference organised by the New York University Law School in Florence that there had been “a pause” in successful al-Qaeda-directed terrorist operations in the UK. He said the group had taken “a bit of a blow” from more than 60 terrorism convictions in Britain, in many of which he said the defendants had no alternative but to plead guilty.

Al-Qaeda has suffered some key losses in recent months – the second exhibit in the argument that it is in decline. Three important commanders have been killed in the Pakistani tribal territories where its headquarters operation is based, two of them reportedly to attacks from US unmanned aerial vehicles. The three were significant figures and their loss, coming so close together, is likely to be a blow.

With the death of Abu Laith al-Libi, a Libyan viewed as a charismatic and experienced commander, the group lost an individual who was influential in Pakistan’s tribal areas. He was also pushing the merger of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group – which has been seeking to unseat Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi – with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has ambitions to launch a regional struggle across north Africa and possibly in Europe.

Another victim of a US drone attack was reportedly Abu Suleiman al-Jaziri, an Algerian and an experienced commander and trainer of al-Qaeda forces in northern Pakistan.

The third loss was Abu Ubaida al-Masri, an Egyptian whose death apparently from natural causes was reported this year. His death was a significant blow because of his role as head of external operations and his part in planning attacks in Europe, including the UK. He may have been behind the July 7 2005 bombings on the London transport system.

Yet al-Qaeda has weathered such setbacks before. When US-led attacks destroyed much of what existed on September 11, 2001 of its core command, it was not long before scores of self-radicalised terrorist cells had sprung up in the west. Jonathan Evans, director-general of MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence service, said in November that his agency knew of 2,000 people involved in terrorism and suspected there were many more.

This “self-seeding” phenomenon was once regarded as the ultimate nightmare. If plotters were not linked to al-Qaeda’s hierarchy, how would security agencies stand a chance of finding them? This view has softened over time, however, since the self-seeded cells appear in the main to be far less capable than those trained by al-Qaeda’s experts.

Part of the reason for this may be the limitations of the internet. As an instrument for radicalisation and for communication, the web is peerless. But as a training tool, it has proved much less useful. It is true that bomb-making and other terrorist techniques can be found on the internet, but many of these instructions are unreliable or incomplete. It was al-Qaeda training in Pakistan of at least two of the July 7 bombers that appears to have made the group more lethal.

Philip Mudd, associate executive assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s national security branch, says he is less concerned than he was about spontaneous cells. “I used to worry about atomisation as the main threat, but what has happened is that some of the people executing the threat don’t understand the vision. They have an emotional rather than an ideological motivation,” he says. “The operational capabilities of the individuals [in the self-seeded cells] are significantly less than of those who are centrally controlled.”

Nonetheless, there is a division that has grown up among terrorism experts in the US between those who view the al-Qaeda hierarchy as a deep and enduring threat to the west, and those who see the random spontaneous groups, some pretty hopeless and unimaginative, as the main manifestation of Islamist terrorism.

The debate is being played out in the pages of Foreign Affairs following an attack by Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism professor at Georgetown University, on a new book by Marc Sageman, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer turned academic.

Mr Sageman coined the phrase “groups of guys” to describe the youths who often start playing football or cricket together and end up plotting terrorism. The title of his book explains his point of view: Leaderless Jihad. Mr Hoffman says that Mr Sageman underplays the risks and that it is too soon to write off al-Qaeda; Mr Sageman’s reply is awaited.

michael hayden

Perhaps the most powerful evidence that al-Qaeda is in decline is the recent series of setbacks it has suffered in its heartlands. Here the official case was put by Michael Hayden, director of the CIA (right). “On balance we are doing pretty well,” he told The Washington Post last month. “Near strategic defeat for al-Qaeda in Iraq. Near strategic defeat for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Significant setbacks for al-Qaeda globally – and here I’m going to use the word ‘ideologically’, as a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form on Islam.”

The setbacks have fallen into three interlinked categories: operational, ideological and popular.

The network’s most noticeable operational setback has been in Iraq, where it has suffered a backlash among the Sunni tribes that were previously its most vociferous supporters. This is partly because of US action – the “surge” in troop numbers that put more pressure on the group – and partly the result of payments to buy the support of tribal leaders. But it also appears to represent, at least in part, a rejection of the hardline and murderous rule of al-Qaeda in the areas where it once held sway. The group has also been undermined, say some analysts, by infighting for resources. Beyond that, western officials say there is little evidence – yet – of so-called “blowback” from battle-hardened fighters in Iraq returning to Europe, although one alleged British plot may have an Iraq link.

Saudi Arabia is also acknowledged to have awoken belatedly to the threat al-Qaeda posed to its own regime. Some concerns exist, including its porous borders with states such as Yemen, where al-Qaeda remains active. But it has swept up hundreds of suspect al-Qaeda members over the past few years and has embarked on a resource-intensive deradicalisation programme on detainees, while at the same time encouraging religious teachers to debate ideological questions.

More broadly, a deep debate on ideological questions is under way among Islamist hardliners over the justification for violence. Two recent articles in US publications – one written by Lawrence Wright in The New Yorker and the other by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank in The New Republic – focus on the consequences of an apparent change of heart of two ideologically powerful former al-Qaeda sympathisers. The two men are Sheikh Salman al-Oudah, an influential Saudi religious scholar, and Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, an Egyptian known as Dr Fadl, currently in an Egyptian jail.

In an interview with al-Hayat newspaper, Dr Fadl describes Osama bin Laden and his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as “extremely immoral”. Sheikh Salman addressed the al-Qaeda leader on MBC, a Middle Eastern television network, asking him: “My brother Osama, how much blood has been spilt. How many innocent people, children, elderly and women have been killed ... in the name of al-Qaeda?”

Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst, argues that such debates are customary among Islamists. The only difference this time is that it is more public than usual and that “many heretofore credible western analysts are indulging in wishful thinking and giving great credence to the words of al-Qaeda critics, even though the two sources they most often and most fully cite are of rather doubtful credibility.”

The statements of the two men will carry some weight with Muslims, he says in a commentary for the Jamestown Foundation, a US think-tank. But he adds: “Their words would carry much more weight among Islamists and average Muslims – and would pose a much greater threat to the future of al-Qaeda and the Islamist movement – if it was not so starkly clear that both men are fully under the not-always-gentle thumb of the Saudi and Egyptian regimes, and that each has personally benefited from his willingness to recant former positions by publishing anti-Islamist statements and treatises both regimes want published and widely distributed.”

More importantly, he says, the theological challenges change nothing with regard to the fundamental motivation of al-Qaeda and its allies – the impact of US and western policies in the Muslim world; the presence of US and western military forces in the Arab region; and US and western support for tyrannical Arab regimes. As long as this lasts, al-Qaeda and its allies will continue fighting and their efforts will continue to win broad or increasing public support, or at least acquiescence.

Ideological issues have always been sensitive for al-Qaeda for neither Osama bin Laden nor Mr al-Zawahiri are noted Islamic scholars. But the suggestion of challenge from within the Muslim world has not been limited to the ideological domain.

Saudi public opinion

Popular questioning of the organisation’s tactics appears to have grown, much of it based on worries about the number of innocent people, particularly Muslims, killed in al-Qaeda attacks. Having invited questions on the internet from fellow jihadis last December, Mr al-Zawahiri chose to answer one question reflecting such concerns: “Excuse me, Mr Zawahiri, but who is it who is killing, with your excellency’s blessing, the innocents in Baghdad, Morocco and Algeria? Do you consider the killing of women and children to be jihad?”

In reply, Mr al-Zawahiri replies: “We have not killed innocents. In fact, we fight those who kill innocents: those who kill innocents are the Americans, the Jews, the Russians, the French and their agents. Were we insane killers of innocents, it would be possible for us to kill thousands of them in the crowded markets, but we are confronting the enemies of the Muslims and targeting them, and during this, an innocent might fall.”

Nonetheless, on the sketchy evidence that is available, al-Qaeda tactics do appear to have contributed to a fall in popular support in places even beyond Iraq. According to a public opinion survey carried out in December by Terror Free Tomorrow, a not-for-profit group seeking to establish why people support or oppose extremism, fewer than one in 10 Saudis had a favourable opinion of al-Qaeda and 88 per cent approved of the Saudi military and police pursuing al-Qaeda fighters. A poll conducted by the same organisation in Pakistan in January showed support for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Mr bin Laden and other radical Islamist groups had dropped by half from the previous August (see chart).

There are also claims that support for al-Qaeda ideology among European Muslims is either weakening or, at least, has not grown.

Mr Clarke, the former UK anti-terrorism police chief, told the NYU Law School conference that successful convictions of terrorist plotters using normal legal processes had led to “constructive discussion in communities” of Muslims in the UK that may in the past have been sceptical about the threat. “People can no longer deny [the existence of plots by extremists] because they can see the number of convictions there have been before the courts using recognised legal process.”

Armando Spataro, Milan’s deputy chief prosecutor and anti­terrorist co-ordinator, also speaking on the sidelines of the NYU Law School conference, said the terrorism threat would be difficult to sustain because “the majority of immigrants don’t accept the terrorists’ ideas”.

Does all this mean, then, that al-Qaeda can be written off?

The answer is, of course, No. Al-Qaeda appears to be down, but it is not out. The network is still attempting to establish affiliates across the Middle East and into Africa and continues to be operationally active on the Pakistan-Afghan border and in Iraq and North Africa. Routes through which terrorists can flow between Europe and Pakistan and North Africa are a cause of continuing concern. Iraqi blowback could emerge late after struggle with the US in Iraq dies down. It was, after all, years after the Soviets left Afghanistan before the wider al-Qaeda threat emerged out of that conflict.

Some western terrorism officials now see the danger of al-Qaeda to derive not from its operations but from the group’s anti-democratic, illiberal and violent ideology, which risks becoming embedded among a significant minority of the population. Moreover, western governments have provided – for example in the invasion of Iraq – and may continue to provide motivation for the radicalisation of new generations of terrorists.

But the main concern is the risk that al-Qaeda gains access to chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological weapons – technology its leaders have repeatedly said they wish to acquire. Such a high-impact event is highly improbable. Mr Sheehan says attacks using chemical, biological and radiological weapons would all be difficult to mount and may cause less damage than is popularly estimated. It is possible that only an attack with a nuclear device, the most difficult type of operation for a terrorist to launch, would constitute a true strategic threat to the west. But that is enough to mean the group will have to remain in western government sights for years to come.

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