A year ago Tuesday, Navy SEALs attacked Osama bin Laden's secret compound in Pakistan and may have fundamentally changed al-Qaida as we know it.
The Obama administration's top counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, spoke Monday in Washington, D.C., and seemed on the precipice of talking about the terrorist group in the past tense.
"The death of bin Laden was our most strategic blow yet against al-Qaida," Brennan told an audience at the Wilson Center. "And for the first time since this fight began, we can look ahead and envision a world in which the al-Qaida core is simply no longer relevant."
Brennan was careful to talk about the al-Qaida core, and the distinction he's making is important. It signals just how much the fight against al-Qaida has changed. The death of bin Laden crystallized a new way the intelligence community has started to think about the group. Officials now divide their analysis into two distinct categories: the al-Qaida organization and al-Qaida as a movement.
The Two Al-Qaidas
The organization is the group that Osama bin Laden built decades ago. It started almost like a corporation; recruits had salaries and vacation time. That al-Qaida, officials said, is on life support. Al-Qaida as a movement, whether people embrace its ideology or attack in its name, is still robust, and it is this movement component of al-Qaida that worries counterterrorism officials.
"The mother al-Qaida is a couple hundred people," says Daniel Byman, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It has certainly shown it is capable, it's lethal, but its real army are these affiliate groups."
Affiliate groups like al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen and al-Shabab in Somalia.
"A number of groups around the globe have taken on the al-Qaida label, and this trend seems to be accelerating," Byman said at a recent Brookings event looking at al-Qaida a year after bin Laden. "So we have groups that primarily had a local agenda, a local focus, local fighters, and now they are somewhat of an al-Qaida flavor to them, and that 'somewhat' is really the key.
"On one hand you have groups like al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula that could be out of the al-Qaida core's playbook, and in other cases you have attacks on Western targets that are really local. There's a real range," he said.
Yemen's arm is the example that gets the most attention. Its leadership has launched at least two plots against U.S. civil aviation: the attack on Northwest Flight 253 several Christmases ago, in which a young man boarded the flight with explosives hidden in his underwear, and a cargo bomb plot a short time after that.
There are other, less high-profile, examples. Consider a group in Nigeria called Boko Haram. It has been in the headlines recently for its role in attacking Christian targets in Nigeria. Right now, the Boko Haram attacks are local. What intelligence officials are watching for is whether that changes. Al-Qaida's viability as a movement depends on whether its post-bin Laden leadership can take groups like Boko Haram and get them to embrace a global agenda.
Too Soon To Tell
Phil Mudd is a former top counterterrorism official at both the CIA and the FBI. As he sees it, any talk of al-Qaida's demise is premature.
"We know it is over when we see people who don't cite al-Qaida ideology for attempting to acquire weapons and conduct attacks," Mudd says. "There are still kids out there who say, 'I want to be a member.' "
The gunman who was responsible for France's worst terrorist attacks in years would fall into that category. He had never been trained by al-Qaida, but he embraced the group's ideology. In March, he killed three Jewish children, a rabbi and three paratroopers in a killing spree that ended in a shootout at his apartment in Toulouse.
Investigators were not able to find any direct link between the shooter and al-Qaida aside from his perusing jihadi chat rooms and perusing the group's propaganda on the Web. Interestingly, he claimed that he was actually a member of al-Qaida. Technically, in terms of the organization, he wasn't. Ideologically, however, he was.
Mudd says that's the kind of terrorism we should expect from al-Qaida now that bin Laden is dead: ideologically driven lone actors.
"Ideology dies a slow death," Mudd says. "Ideas have a half-life of years or decades, and this idea [of al-Qaida-ism] is quite deeply rooted, I think, in extremist circles. For an idea to be uprooted, it takes not a year or [even] a couple of years. We're only 10 years into this. Operationally, that is a long time; ideologically it is not. Another 10 years maybe, and we ought to be done."
In the meantime, intelligence officials keeping tabs on the group's core operation are focused on three things: whether al-Qaida is able to recruit new members; whether the group can raise money; and whether Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's successor, has any command or control over the people who are killing in the name of his organization.
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