All wars end. Or do they?
Rather too often, we are being reminded that the ‘war on terror’ against the Al Qaeda terrorist network is far from over, in fact that it will never end and even, that it can never end. One military analyst, for example,
“a former employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the US, states OBL and his closest circle in Pakistan were hardly influential to AQ franchises and affiliates. In his last few years as AQ’s leader, OBL was never concerned in the operational aspects of AQ. This perhaps means that the death of OBL, though a great success for counterterrorism, will not greatly affect AQ and its operations around the world, for example, AQ in the Arab Peninsula has been permitted to operate against the Gulf rulers without any open meddling from AQ’s inner leadership.
Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies states AQ has had ten years to attain another leader, has formed strong and international cells and superfluous networks, and has found alternative sites throughout the world. AQ is still a large threat and the US and its allies still have a long way to go in the war against terrorism.”
Really? Firstly, the body of evidence uncovered from Osama Bin Laden’s hideout contradicts these statements. He was far more than a figurehead or ‘rock star’ icon of dark charisma. He tried to maintain an intricate bureaucratic chain of command while realising that there were franchises that were semi-autonomous. OBL was still influential, he was giving orders, he took great interest in the operational side of his movement, and he did have resources at his disposal. And in the cases where he was not fully in control, OBL recognised what some Western observers don’t, that the loosening of the structure came at a high price, enabling the counter-productive behaviour of Al Qaeda affiliates, imitators and franchises and leading to a crisis of legitimacy for the network, from Algeria to Iraq. Indeed, in their own audits and self-assessments, Al Qaeda Central were more willing to entertain the idea of their own failure than many Western analysts.
Secondly, how is AQ still a ‘large threat’ to the security of the United States and its allies in any measure? Against Western targets, it has failed to pull off a complex, mass casualty assault of the 9/11 variety in over ten years since 9/11, and since 2003-2005, none of the lesser scale of a 7/7 or Madrid bombing. It has become wildly unpopular and suffered violent blowback in lands it regards as sacred to its cause, like Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Its attempts at even low-tech attacks in the West have been disrupted and/or ineffective. Third-order nuisance maybe, non-trivial concern in places like Somalia and Syria perhaps, downright lethal still in its car bombings occasionally in Iraq, but ‘large threat’? When its brand is at best marginal amongst most protesting masses in the Arab Spring, how dangerous is it, in terms of translating violence into political results?
The killing of Bin Laden removed one of the networks most skilful, iconic and seasoned players. The regular killing of his subordinate commanders has also drained it of hard-won skills. Terrorism isn’t an instant capability that anyone can acquire at the click of a mouse. It takes experience, group cohesion, a high level of political will, operational security and a range of intellectual and technical abilities.
No doubt violently draining the network of talented folk can produce blowback and have ‘martyring’ effects. But to announce that Bin Laden was just a figurehead, a borderline irrelevance, and that this World War must continue as though the adversary is just as potent as it was on 10 September, is to perpetuate one of the most serious errors of the War on Terror, the failure to measure risks and costs soberly.
There is also a more unfortunate side to this debate: the refusal of professional experts at times to acknowledge not only that AQ has taken hits to its credibility and cohesion, but to acknowledge that it even could. Is it bad for business to recognise when the object of one’s intellectual fascination is fading in importance?
The War on Terror provided many people with a chance to build an industry around worrying about terrorism and warning that the threat is dire and almost never-ending. The last thing they would want would be to admit that the death of OBL and his subordinates has been a serious blow, or the policy implications flowing from it, that we can scale back our global efforts to conventional, day-to-day counter-terrorism. That would be bad for business.
But for those who disagree, please consider this: what would defeat, or marginalisation, look like? If you are saying that Al Qaeda is still a large threat worthy of an ongoing, top-priority war, what are your criteria for our success and their failure?