Don't Underestimate the al Qaeda Threat

Al Qaeda will continue to pose a grave national security threat to the United States and they will continue to mutate and transform.

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In this handout photo from the U.S. Air Force made available Thursday, March 7, 2002, soldier of the 101st Airborne Division get ready as they wait to join the ground assault against Taliban and al Qaeda forces near Gardez, Afghanistan, Saturday, March 2, 2002. The soldiers waited most of the day near the flight line at Bagram Air Base.

Dr. Lamont Colucci is an associate professor of politics at Ripon College, recent Fulbright Scholar to the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, and author of The National Security Doctrines of the American Presidency: How they Shape our Present and Future, among other books. You can find out more at lamontcolucci.com.

There has been so much written about al Qaeda  that yet another article is bound to generate a collective yawn. "The base" has become synonymous with terrorism in general, much to the detriment of counterterrorism efforts. It has become a catch-all term that fails to capture the shift created by this new form of terrorism. These Islamic fanatics were not like the terrorist organizations of the 19th and 20th century, primarily communist-inspired ethno national ventures such as the Irish Republican Army and Red Brigades. It was former CIA director Jim Woolsey's quotation that was able to crystalize the change in a single, salient sentence. "Al Qaeda does not want a seat at the table; they want to blow the table up." This was a movement that was even unlike other Islamic extremists groups, they were not merely content with attacking Israel. They wanted empire. They wanted, just as the Soviets did, a new man, Novus homo. This Islamo-Bolshevism wanted to remake the Middle East, and then the world.

The 9/11 Commission reports that "the base" or al Qaeda was established as the headquarters of future jihad in 1988, when the organization, whose foundation was Arabs in Afghanistan, was already talking about the political goal of a Pan-Islamic Caliphate, an Islamic empire that mirrored the medieval Caliphate. Ayman al-Zawahiri, often thought to be the operational commander of Al Qaeda, wrote in "Knights under the Prophet's Banner" that "it is the hope of the Muslim nation to restore its fallen caliphate and regain its lost glory."

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

The terrorist threat posed by al Qaeda emerged during the Clinton years. The first attack on Americans by the group known as al Qaeda was not the February 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, but rather the attempted bombing of American military forces in Aden, Yemen on Dec. 29, 1992, one month before Bill Clinton became president. The chronology of subsequent terror attacks can be readily divided into Clinton's first and second terms. Under the first term, from inauguration in 1993 to the presidential election in 1996, al Qaeda geared up from a minor terror enterprise to a global terror network whose number one target would become the United States. 

In 2005 Jordanian journalist Fouad Hussein published an account of Al Qaeda's long-term strategic goals. Based in interviews with al Qaeda operatives Hussein portrays a seven phase plan that, if nothing else, shows the desires, regardless of how fantastical, of the world's most infamous and evil terrorist group. It is a pathway to an Islamic empire:

  1. "The Awakening," 2000-2003: Provoke the U.S. to attack the Islamic world
  2. "Opening Eyes," 2003 through 2006: Recruitment and consolidation
  3. "Arming and Standing Up," 2007-2009: A specific focus on Iraq, Syria, Jordan and motivate all Muslims to attack Israel
  4. "Collapse," 2010-2013: Focus on the collapse of Middle Eastern regimes, conduct attacks on oil shipments to the U.S and the West, and engage in cyberterrorism
  5. "Establishment of the Caliphate," 2013-2016: The U.S. has been pushed out of the Middle East and Israel is severely crippled or destroyed
  6. "Total Confrontation," 2016-2020: A worldwide Islamic army will be ready for final battles with the believers versus nonbelievers
  7. "Victory," 2020: completed goals, the empire is established
  8. [See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

    One can argue about the realism of al Qaeda's goals, but not with their motivation or their intent. Thus, we understand the past and the future. What about the present? We have seen al Qaeda and allied groups mutate and transform as their needs and situations changed. The Bush administration decimated what many refer to as "al Qaeda prime", or the core al Qaeda group that operated along the lines of a paramilitary hierarchy. The next transition was the growth of al Qaeda affiliates and franchises which had connection and obedience to al Qaeda prime. We are now witnessing a new transformation exemplified by a February 2013 trial in the United Kingdom which illustrates another dangerous mutation of the malevolence. This new phase, referred to as "teacher training," involves select extremists traveling to lawless areas of Pakistan, such as Waziristan, to receive terrorist training with the goal of returning to whatever Western country they journeyed from to train local extremists. This greatly reduces the risk and need for transporting large numbers of extremists abroad. This is in large part due to the successful counterterrorists operations by the United States that have targeted training camps and groups of terrorists abroad. It also encourages the development of homegrown extremism. Further, al Qaeda has shifted from scoring catastrophic large scale attacks to more manageable, tactical operations that have focused on soft civilian targets. This situation exists because Pakistan is a failed state, or at least failing. Pakistan is either unwilling or unable to exert sovereignty over large areas of the country, making agreements with her almost useless. In 2013 the Henry Jackson Society published an excellent report entitled, "Al-Qaeda in the United States", clearly illustrating that the future threat by al Qaeda in the United States is homegrown extremists, most of whom have U.S. citizenship.

    America's global war on terror initiated by President Bush, thwarted scores of 9/11 level attacks, and countless number of medium and small attacks were shut down. The very success of the United States has caused complacency. In many ways we have become victims of our own feats, culminating with the hunting down of Osama bin Laden. The death of bin Laden did not hasten the war's end, but it may be used by many to justify a call to prematurely end the war itself. Al Qaeda and her confederates will continue to pose a grave national security threat to the United States and her allies, and they will continue to mutate and transform as long as we see the threat only in pure counterterrorism terms. The war will be won when the West makes a concerted strategic effort on all fronts to confront not only the terrorist groups themselves, but the Islamo-Bolshevik ideology and the rogue states that benefit from their existence.

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