September 21, 2011
Historian Mark Stout
Al Qaeda’s future is gloomy.
That’s the message I took from a conference on 13 and 14 September by the National Defense University’s Conflict Records Research Center and Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Advance Governmental Studies. The event was called “Ten Years Later: Insights on al-Qaeda’s Past & Future through Captured Records” and a lot of the biggest names in the world of jihadist studies spoke. (I also gave a paper on the evolution of American intelligence assessments of the jihadist threat.)
Even Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers (a former CIA officer of Charlie Wilson’s War fame) came by to make some remarks. These have been pretty widely reported, but in summary, Vickers said that al Qaeda remains a serious threat to the American homeland but that the group is “in a more precarious position than at any time since its 2001 ejection from its safe haven in Afghanistan.” He added that the United States government and its various affiliates were continuing to go hammer and tongs after al Qaeda itself and its affiliates and that 18 to 24 months of continued pressure might reduce al Qaeda to merely an organization pumping out propaganda.
There was certainly no triumphalist tone at the conference; this was a pretty staid event. Nevertheless, I was struck by the fact that the scholars who spoke seemed uniformly to agree with Vickers that al Qaeda is in deep trouble. This was true whether the context was al Qaeda Central or the Salafi jhadist movement that it leads writ large. Peter Bergen opined that al Qaeda was no longer a strategic—let alone an existential—threat to the United States, though it merited continued attention because it could still kill Americans. In short, Bergen was arguing that al Qaeda was reduced to a nuisance-level threat. A number of people talked about the pounding that al Qaeda Central had taken from US and coalition forces (largely at the hands of the CIA) and how this had degraded the group’s capabilities. Interestingly, as far as I recall only Vickers and National Defense University Research Fellow Dr. Thomas Lynch mentioned Bin Laden’s death. He argued that the killing was important because Bin Laden had been the link to other major jihadist groups.
Dr. Nelly Lahoud of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, the author of The Jihadis’ Path to Self Destruction, and Brian Fishman of the New America Foundation (among others) noted the problems posed for al Qaeda by the Arab Spring. For years al Qaeda and its allies have been arguing that only jihad could ever bring down the Arab regimes but this claim has been very publicly proved wrong. Fishman observed that while Ayman al-Zawahiri and others have recently been saying that a multiplicity of means is fine and that maybe jihad isn’t always necessary, this is a reversal of a long-standing and central tenet of Salafi jihadism. For al Qaeda, this question used to be a litmus test dividing good Muslims from bad Muslims, but apparently no longer. Fishman further noted the pathetic exchanges about the war in Libya on a particular jihadist web forum. Eager to prove that al Qaeda was fighting Qaddafi, members posted pictures to provide proof; but these pictures were simply of people praying or flying Islamic flags on the battlefield. However, this attempt to buck up morale failed when NATO intervened on the rebels’. The forum members were then unable to explain why NATO would be supporting al Qaeda!
Prof. David Cook of Rice University (the author of the widely acclaimed book Understanding Jihad) gave a talk about the “collapse” since approximately 2005 of the “tacit religious support” provided to Salafi jihadists in the world of Islamic jurisprudence. Several people noted how the callous disregard for Muslim life and the jihadists’ general ineptitude was seriously damaging to the movement, alienating them from the Muslim population. Brian Fishman also referred to research done by another scholar that indicated that al Qaeda’s main media arm, as-Sahab tended to produce propaganda that was out of step with what its audience was interested in. As-Sahab spends a great deal of time producing videos and pronouncements on Iraq and Afghanistan. These products don’t get downloaded very much. What as-Sahab’s audience wants is news about Gaza and to a lesser extent Yemen. On the rare occasions that as-Sahab puts out products on these topics they are eagerly consumed, but then it’s a long wait for the next one.
Finally, a couple of people, taking the idea that al Qaeda is no longer an existential threat as a starting point, posed the provocative question of how, politically speaking, can it ever be feasible to scale back our counterrorism efforts? Nobody had a good answer to that one.