U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's statement last month that al Qaeda's defeat is "within reach" should be cause for celebration. But given the decentralization of the jihadi movement over the past decade, that victory may be meaningless. Although U.S. counterterrorism efforts have indeed substantially weakened the organization, Panetta's comments miss the bigger point about the terrorist threat facing the United States. Over the past decade, that threat has morphed from one led by a hierarchical al Qaeda organization into something much more diffuse, with a greater presence online, that no longer depends on orders from senior leaders in Pakistan.
Without doubt, Osama bin Laden's death was a major setback to the organization, and his charismatic leadership will be difficult to replace. But senior officials in Barack Obama's administration are also arguing that the tactic of targeting mid- to senior-level al Qaeda leaders is finally -- after many years -- beginning to pay dividends. That is, perhaps, an overly optimistic view. The reality is the terrorist threat has simply adapted to the post-9/11 security environment, and there is no evidence to suggest there are any fewer jihadists targeting the United States today. In fact, most anecdotal evidence seems to suggest there are more. Over the last three years, while the policy of targeted killings has been waged, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has emerged as the most lethal of the terrorist network's franchises. While Panetta and other officials have acknowledged that AQAP now poses the greater threat to the United States, the pronouncing of al Qaeda's impending demise nonetheless downplays the the equally if not more dangerous enemy that has emerged out of the ideology of the original. Over the coming years, American-born cleric and AQAP spokesman Anwar al-Awlaki seems poised to prove a significant politicizing figure -- perhaps even more so than bin Laden -- and a highly effective radicalizing force for militant jihad.
As drone warfare has waged in Waziristan and Afghanistan, AQAP leaders have operated with relative ease in Yemen and have successfully carried out a number of attacks against foreign and Yemeni targets in the country. These include deadly attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa in September 2008, dual suicide bombings against South Korean delegations in March 2009, the alleged dispatching of Carlos Bledsoe to open fire at a military recruitment office in Little Rock, Arkansas, in June 2009, and scores of attacks against security forces in Marib, Abyan, Shabwa, and other provinces of Yemen over the last two years. AQAP has also attempted two explosives attacks against airliners arriving in the United States, notably Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempted suicide bombing on Christmas Day 2009, using advanced chemicals in creative ways to bypass security measures. It seems unlikely the group would not attempt another similar attack in the future.
As the New York Times reported this June 14, the CIA is building a new base somewhere near the Arabian Peninsula to launch additional airstrikes against AQAP. Whether future attacks against the group will pay dividends is unknown, but those in recent years did not succeed in preventing, or even hindering, the emergence of this organization. AQAP has supplanted al Qaeda central at least in the sense that Awlaki garners significantly more online interest, especially from youth, than new al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and it is the franchise most active in attempting attacks outside its local environment, i.e., against Western targets. Given that the demise of this al Qaeda organization could well be years away, it seems premature, to say the least, to announce al Qaeda's near demise.
Behind the public leadership of al Qaeda and its franchises, there is a depth of strategic thinking that buoys the movement, and it remains intact. Reading jihadi publications, one finds dozens of former militant commanders from campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s -- Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir -- who continue to provide advice to the movement, guidance on training and tactics, and a seemingly perpetual source of open-source written material that offers lessons for adapting to the enemy's capabilities. Beyond these, there are dozens of highly qualified scholars who provide the religious justification for targeting and killing declared enemies. None of this infrastructure and intellectual framework has been weakened in any meaningful way during the last 10 years of warfare against al Qaeda. True, the Arab Spring took away some of al Qaeda's luster as a revolutionary organization, but the protesters' successes have not been meaningfully secured in Egypt or Tunisia, and change remains in the balance in Syria and Yemen.