In the last several months, there have been a number of voices, both official and unofficial, eulogizing al Qaeda. These voices have sounded a note of increasing triumphalism over the terrorist organization's perceived general defeat, citing al Qaeda's increasing withdrawal from Iraq, loss of standing within the Islamic world, and movement to the peripheries of Africa and South Asia. Unfortunately, this celebration is premature and perhaps even dangerous.
In the case of the first point, which is a real American success, the losses in Iraq stem in part from the overzealous effort by al Qaeda both to radicalize the population and target Iraqi civilians and tribal leaders. That is not to say that the U.S. military and surge strategy did not have an overwhelming impact on the organization's ability to operate, but had al Qaeda not overreached in relation to the local population, it very well could have gone to ground or even temporarily evacuated the country until the surge was over and then re-emerged to target a smaller American force and overly confident Iraqi government. What is more worrisome in this situation is that al Qaeda was, throughout the course of the surge, moving some of its key assets out of the country. This movement of veteran leaders brings operational knowledge, which is in effect a reconstituted leadership cadre, to areas such as southern Afghanistan, where local allies match its zeal and where a repeat of the U.S. surge strategy is likely to have little actual impact unless significantly modified for the local conditions.
The second point of triumphant rhetoric, the celebration of the supposed downfall of al Qaeda and bin Laden within the Muslim world, is an unfortunate illustration of how, despite the passage of seven years since the 9/11 attacks, we in the West still do not understand that culture. Al Qaeda's and bin Laden's popularity, and by extension legitimacy, is faltering not because of some general repudiation of their ideology, goals, or even barbarism but rather because of their inability to launch follow-up attacks against the West on the level of 9/11. There is also a general concern that, rather than reducing the presence of outsiders within Muslim lands, al Qaeda has only brought more. This has resulted in Iraq becoming a Shiite-dominated country, among many other unintended consequences that are viewed with skepticism and disdain by their natural constituencies. Sadly, this positive trend is in reality only a single successful large-scale strike away from its own reversal. In addition, this trend is likely to relax our vigilance in combating this threat, making such a strike all the more probable.
Third is the issue of al Qaeda's movement to what some consider the peripheries of the world, such as Algeria, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, Yemen, and the Afghan-Pakistani tribal areas. Although most of these areas are not likely tourist destinations, they do offer an ideal environment for al Qaeda to rest, train, and reconstitute. Within these areas of American strategic blindness and neglect, al Qaeda is freed from the watchful eyes of those who would, or perhaps more to the point could, assist the United States in maintaining the pressure. One should also remember that it was from these very same areas that al Qaeda so successfully trained, planned, and executed its terror campaign of 10 years. In addition, Algeria represents a worrisome trend in which a local and in many ways marginalized organization has found renewed support and vigor by rebranding itself as a franchised operation of al Qaeda. This trend could easily be repeated in any number of areas from Latin America to Central and Southeast Asia. One must also not forget that one of the primary areas of al Qaeda's retreat is next to and within an increasingly fragile and unstable nation that happens to be the only nuclear-armed Islamic country in the world.
In the end, one of the most sobering trends that must not be forgotten in the swirl of headlines is that the terrorist threat, represented in the minds of most Americans in the form of al Qaeda and bin Laden, is today fundamentally different from what it was seven years ago. On that peaceful September morning, it was a tumor that benefited from widespread neglect because it was seen mostly as a harmless annoyance. It has since metastasized, spreading almost unseen because of such issues as the politically driven media's focus on Iraq and our own political correctness, which blinds us to those working on behalf of the Islamist cause who wear suits and have western accents. However, regardless of whether it is caused by al Qaeda or some other organization, the West will face another beautifully terrible day in the near future. That is, unless we focus on the foundational threat itself: radicalized Islam, wherever it is found.
Christopher Brown is a senior research associate and terrorism expert at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va.