Al Qaeda on the Ropes

A front-page story in today’s Washington Post reports that al Qaeda is a shadow of its former self, and finds that there is even talk among senior defense and intelligence officials of the organization’s imminent demise.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta declared during a recent visit to Afghanistan that “we’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda.” The comment was dismissed by skeptics as an attempt to energize troops while defending the administration’s decision to wind down a decade-old war.

But senior U.S. officials from the CIA, the National Counterterrorism Center and other agencies have expressed similar views in classified intelligence reports and closed-door briefings on Capitol Hill, officials said.

“There is a swagger within the community right now for good reason,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee.

“Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is nowhere near defeat,” Chambliss said, referring to the Yemen-based affiliate. “But when it comes to al-Qaeda [core leadership in Pakistan], we have made the kind of strides that we need to make to be in a position of thinking we can win.”

It is unfortunate that this story is filed in the “news” category. Al Qaeda has been on the ropes for some time. It is, at best, “a fragmented and unmanageable movement.“ But if senior officials are willing to speak so publicly about our recent gains, it may signal something significant.

As many have noted, one of AQ’s goals (and the goal of many other terrorist organizations) is to induce a counterproductive and self-injurious overreaction on the part of its target audience or government. The best approach, though it is difficult to achieve in practice, is to avoid terrorizing ourselves. If, many years from now, historians conclude that AQ was never as threatening as we made it out to be, they may deem the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on homeland security post-9/11, and the trillions more spent on wars that were once believed connected to the so-called Global War on Terror (GWOT), to have been an enormous waste of resources. We will be seen as having played into Osama bin Laden’s “bleed and bankruptcy” strategy. Alternatively, in-depth analysis may find certain low-visibility (and likely low-cost) policies to have been particularly effective at degrading the organization’s capabilities, and ultimately foiling bin Laden’s ridiculously grandiose schemes for world domination.

For now, U.S. officials continue to issue advisories of a danger from al Qaeda. The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that a State Department global travel warning urged Americans to “take precaution and maintain vigilance about terrorist threats, demonstrations and the possibility of violence against U.S. citizens.” If Secretary of Defense Panetta is feeling confident, the folks in Foggy Bottom appear not to have received the memo. This policy disconnect–with some officials believing we are safer while others warn of impending danger–may be caused by bureaucratic inertia, the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, or merely an elaborate scheme to deflect blame in the unlikely event that an attack occurs at some later date. 

For now, while we should cheer al Qaeda’s rapidly diminishing hold on our collective psyche, we still seem a long ways from that place Sen. John Kerry spoke of during the 2004 presidential campaign

”We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance.”

”As a former law enforcement person, I know we’re never going to end prostitution. We’re never going to end illegal gambling. But we’re going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn’t on the rise. It isn’t threatening people’s lives every day, and fundamentally, it’s something that you continue to fight, but it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.”