When Atiyah Abd al-Rahman disappeared into the blast cloud of a Hellfire missile last month in Pakistan, the target of an apparent CIA drone strike, it confirmed what many counterterrorism experts have long known: Perhaps the least promising job promotion on earth is to be elevated into the top leadership ranks of al-Qaida.
Rahman was considered the organization’s second-in-command, and a close confidant of current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. With the killing of Rahman and the dispatch last May of Osama bin Laden, it’s getting very lonely at the top for Zawahiri and the relatively few remaining “core” al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan.
On the eve of the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, National Journal asked top U.S. counterterrorism officials and experts to put those al-Qaida losses into context, and to assess the enemy in America’s long “war on terror.” Though opinions vary on some particulars, there was consensus on the fundamental assessment that the core al-Qaida terrorist organization is crippled -- still dangerous and capable of launching terrorist attacks, but almost certainly lacking in the ability to plan and execute strategic “spectaculars” on the order of 9/11.
There was also broad agreement among counterterrorism experts that a successful terrorist attack on the United States or its Western allies is all but inevitable sometime in the future. Barring terrorists acquiring a weapon of mass destruction, however, the experts generally doubted it would prove a 9/11-type game-changer.
According to Andrew Liepman, principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, there are essentially three schools of thought about the future of a post-bin Laden al-Qaida. The first holds that bin Laden was an iconic leader who supplied the essential ideology and vision, and without him al-Qaida is finished. The second school of thought, he said, holds that by the time of his death bin Laden was isolated and largely irrelevant to al-Qaida operations, and thus his death will make little difference.
“I think the truth lies between those poles,” Liepman told National Journal. “Bin Laden’s death is an important milestone in a 10-year battle against a truly evil ideology, and the country and the West are safer for the fact that he is gone. No one else in the organization has his personal credibility and charisma, so his death was a real body blow to an organization that was already struggling and in a lot of trouble. On the other hand, we’ve seen that despite being degraded, al-Qaida has the ability to resuscitate itself. So it would be a big mistake for us to take our eye off of this threat.”
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden said the recent killing of Rahman, coming so close on the heels of bin Laden’s death, will deal a major blow to an already reeling al-Qaida.
“Killing Rahman was big deal because he was the bridge between Zawahiri and core al-Qaida in Pakistan, and its franchises,” Hayden said in an interview. “And given the pace with which we are taking their senior leadership off the battlefield, al-Qaida no longer has a deep bench at all.”
WATCH: Bin Laden hunters reflect on the search:
Losing the Narrative
Bin Laden was probably least expendable to al-Qaida as its visionary and chief propagandist. Just the fact of his surviving the most intense manhunt in history for nearly a decade was part of the group’s powerful mythology. Yet even before his death, polls showed that Muslim support for al-Qaida’s bloody tactics and bin Laden’s vision of a fundamentalist Islamic caliphate was declining dramatically. The Arab world has been far more transfixed by the self-immolation of a lowly Tunisian fruit seller that ignited the Arab Spring democratic uprisings earlier this year, a new narrative that refutes much of what al-Qaida stands for.
“Bin Laden was important as the symbolic leader and 'emir' of al-Qaida, and also because he narrated to his followers who they were fighting, and why. There is no one else in the organization who can assume that communications role in quite the same way,” said Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden. While al-Qaida remains militarily resilient, he said, it has ultimately failed as a broad political movement.
“Instead we’ve seen the revolutions of the Arab Spring launched on very different principles,” said Coll. “So al-Qaida is isolated within the greater Muslim community to a large degree. However, it continues to harbor skilled terrorists determined and willing to sacrifice themselves to carry out bold plots, and small groups of determined fanatics can cause a lot of havoc in the world.”
Given the relentless pressure on al-Qaida’s core group in Pakistan, the future of the organization may lie in more dispersed affiliates that have sprung up in some of the least governed and most violent spaces in the world, fertile ground for its brand of nihilistic extremism. These include al-Qaida in Iraq, an Algerian offshoot operating in North Africa and calling itself al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and the affiliated Islamist militants of al-Shabaab in Somalia.
There is general consensus among counterterror experts, however, that the most dangerous offshoot by far remains the Yemeni branch that operates under the name al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. A leader of the group, Anwar al-Awlaki, is a charismatic Yemeni-American who grew up in New Mexico and is considered the most influential English-speaking cleric preaching global jihad today.
Almost singularly among the al-Qaida affiliates, the Yemeni branch has also shown a determination to strike the U.S. homeland, assisting would-be Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in his attempt to down an airliner in route to Detroit in 2009, and sending parcel bombs to the United States in 2010.
“I think our extreme pressure has hollowed out the core al-Qaida group to the point where it’s virtually impossible for them to stage another major attack on the United States,” said Charles Allen, a career CIA officer and former chief of Intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security. “Going forward, I think our success will be measured largely by our ability to reduce the offensive capabilities of these affiliates like al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabaab, and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. So while al-Qaida has been incredibly badly damaged, its tentacles will remain a threat for a long time to come.”
The Lone Wolves
Indeed, the tentacle that resulted in the most lethal terrorist plot on U.S. soil since 9/11 was a lone operator named Nidal Hasan, an Army major who was apparently radicalized over the internet and later killed 13 people in a shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009. Faisal Shahzad, who was sentenced to life in prison last year for attempting to set off a car bomb in New York’s Times Square, was another so-called “lone wolf.”
Despite al-Qaida’s relatively limited success in radicalizing and recruiting such “homegrown terrorists,” a recent RAND Corporation study noted that 176 Americans have been indicted, arrested, or otherwise identified as jihadist terrorists or their supporters since 9/11. Given its diminished capacity to infiltrate terrorists into the United States, al-Qaida in the future is likely to continue focusing on recruiting such homegrown agents over the Internet. That represents a threat that is more diffuse and difficult to detect, counterterror experts say, but one that is much less lethal than the model on which al-Qaida made its reputation -- methodically planned plots executed by sleeper cells of trained and determined terrorists.
“Given our much improved screening capability, it’s just more difficult for al-Qaida to cross our borders,” said Fran Townsend, the former Homeland Security and Counterterrorism adviser to George W. Bush. “That’s why radicalized preachers like Awlaki are using the internet to try and recruit people from within the United States to act on an individual basis, knowing that groups are easier for us to detect. I do think we’re going to see much more of that type of threat from al-Qaida.”
By many measures, the decade that followed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks was among the most tumultuous in U.S. history. Yet as Americans pause and look back on the 10-year anniversary, they can also take solace in the fact that many of our worst fears never materialized. There were no subsequent waves of al-Qaida attacks on the homeland, the terrorists were not behind the anthrax attacks nor have they acquired weapons of mass destruction, and bin Laden failed in his mission of uniting a mass movement under the banner of global jihad. Today al-Qaida 2.0 is the sum of almost none of those fears.
Photos from Getty Images, UPI, and White House. Music by Kevin MacLeod. contributed to this article.
This article appears in the September 7, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.