by Ryan Mauro
In September, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael G. Vickers said that Al-Qaeda will fragment within 18-24 months if its leaders keep being taken out at this rate. Defense Secretary Panetta talks of “strategically defeating” the group if another 10-20 leaders are removed. Some officials are now taking it even further, claiming that only two leaders need to be killed or captured to neuter the group. Al-Qaeda has undoubtedly taking many serious blows this year, but it is too early to rule out its comeback.
There is much reason for jubilation over Al-Qaeda’s woes. followed by the “commando commander” and the chief of East Africa operations, Fazul Abdul Muhammed. The new second-in-command, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman was later killed,, as were Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. A number of other senior members that are less well-known also met their end. Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia, Al-Shabaab, has been kicked out of Mogadishu.was killed in May,
However, it is too optimistic to say that only two leaders, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Yahya al-Libi, need to be killed or arrested to finish the group off. The Long War Journal has a list of 26 important Al-Qaeda officials in Pakistan alone. It does not even include the leadership in North Africa, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Iran and the other Gulf countries.
There are several leaders worth fearing. Saif al-Adel used to be a colonel in the Egyptian special forces and was trained in Lebanon by Hezbollah and the . After being allowed to leave Iran last year, he became the chief of international operations. He was falsely reported as Osama Bin Laden’s successor and has been called “the most ruthless leader in Al-Qaeda.” Then there’s Osama Bin Laden 21-year old son, Hamza, who he groomed as an eventual replacement.
Naser al-Washihi is the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, widely regarded as the most dangerous Al-Qaeda affiliate. The Yemeni military claimed it killed him on August 28, but AQAP says he is alive. There’s also Matiur Rahman, has masterminded plots against the U.S. and leads operations in Pakistan. A man named Adnan Shukrijumah is still on the loose. He became famous as the “next .”
The overly-optimistic declarations of Al-Qaeda’s impending defeat also stem from a narrow definition of Al-Qaeda. There are multiple groups that work so closely with Al-Qaeda that they are, for all intents and purposes, components of the group. The Long War Journal gives two examples. The leader of the East Turkistan Islamic Party oversees Al-Qaeda’s networks in the Pakistani tribal areas. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan provides Al-Qaeda with trained fighters.
It is easy to think of other examples. The Pakistani Taliban would be happy to give Al-Qaeda a helping hand. The Pakistan-based groups like the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harakut ul-Mujahideen have close ties to Al-Qaeda. They largely work with impunity, enjoy support from the Pakistani ISI intelligence service and essentially operate states-within-states. In Nigeria, Boko Haram is allied to Al-Qaeda and is a growing threat.
Al-Qaeda has several new opportunities around the world to exploit. The deterioration in Pakistani-American cooperation will give it more freedom. It has gained significant ground in Yemen since the revolution against President Saleh began and one of the opposition’s top leaders is affiliated with Al-Qaeda. It has friends in Libya and Egypt and has founded a new affiliate in the .
It can exploit the increasing instability in Syria and hope for a resurgence in Iraq as U.S. forces depart. Al-Qaeda has a pipeline through Iran, thanks to a secret deal with the regime. In Somalia, al-Shabaab has been kicked out of Mogadishu and faces offensives from the Transitional Federal Government, Kenya and Ethiopia, but is still getting backing from Eritrea. The support from Pakistan, Iran, Eritrea and allies in the Gulf can help Al-Qaeda to recover. And, as the takes power in the Arab world, its promotion of Islamist theology will indirectly fuel Al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda and other terrorists also have reason to believe that its fortunes in the Western world will increase over time. The Obama Administration confirms that the number of homegrown terror plots has sharply increased. The Muslim populations are quickly growing thanks to immigration and high birth rates. Even if only a tiny fraction is sympathetic to Al-Qaeda, it still means a larger number of recruits.
The latest poll shows that five percent of Muslim-Americans express a favorable opinion of Al-Qaeda. Another 14 percent wouldn’t answer the question. That is quite a pool to recruit from considering there are 1.8 million Muslim adults in the U.S. In addition, polls show that Muslims born in the U.S. are more likely to have extremist views than Muslim immigrants from overseas. This indicates the homegrown terrorism problem will get worse over time unless this trend is reversed.
Al-Qaeda is in very bad shape but the U.S. is doing it a favor if victory is prematurely declared. If the events of 2011 bear any lesson, it’s that the status quo can unexpectedly and dramatically change. Al-Qaeda may be losing right now, but no one knows what tomorrow brings.
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