June 3, 2008 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
The good news is that al Qaeda's in bad shape; the bad news is that the terrorist threat is evolving. If we don't adapt, the tide could turn back.
Director of National Intelligence Michael Hayden last week told The Washington Post that al Qaeda movements in Iraq and Saudi Arabia were essentially defeated and pushed back on their heels elsewhere, including Pakistan.
Some doubt that take on Pakistan, especially with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri still on the loose. Yet the other anti-terror gains seem undeniable.
But the bad guys could bounce back. Consider some trends that worry US planners.
First, al Qaeda's Internet propaganda machine is working overtime to spread its extremist message, looking for recruits and funding and pushing terrorist acts to overcome its setbacks on the ground in places like Iraq.
Terror groups prize the Web, releasing a torrent of products - from print manifestos to on-line terror encyclopedias to videos - for digestion by their supporters around the world.
Al Qaeda's online mouthpiece is a media-production entity called as-Sahab ("the clouds"). Using that and other outlets to push the party line of violence and hate, the terror groups seek to win support from sympathetic audiences and to project an image of power and prestige.
Indeed, Zawahiri wrote: "We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media . . . a race for the hearts and minds of our people."
This isn't amateurish stuff. These outlets are feverishly improving their quality - and achieving ever-more-impressive message conformity, a key to propaganda warfare.
They're targeting younger audiences and women - and translating their extremist screeds into other languages, especially English. Production levels are at all-time highs, say analysts.
Experts believe Internet radicalization is replacing in-person radicalization in terror camps, tea houses or mosques. The Web lets al Qaeda & Co. build ties with the sympathetic, radicalize those on the margins - and offer training and expertise to the converted. All without a trip to a terror camp - a "virtual safe haven."
Which leads to the next worry: Homegrown terrorists.
Al Qaeda has long sought to recruit operatives already in-place in the West - foot soldiers who don't need passports or transportation to slaughter innocents here.
Europe has a real problem. DNI Hayden told Congress this year of an "influx of Western recruits" into Pakistan since 2006, which suggests rising radicalizing across the Pond.
Homegrown terrorists pulled off deadly attacks in Madrid (2004) and London (2005). Other plots have been hatched, or carried out, in recent years in Germany, the Netherlands, France and Denmark.
The Brits feel particularly under the gun; their authorities are tracking dozens of active plots and more than 2,000 people in the UK. The 2006 London-based conspiracy to bring down 10 or so airliners over the Atlantic could've produced more victims than 9/11.
But it's not just Europe. We've also had terror attempts here, too - by "self-radicalized" people who were inspired by, but had no physical contact with al Qaeda at all. Such homegrown, self-radicalized "lone wolf" terrorists are a particular worry for the FBI.
There's also the growing intersection of terrorism and international crime. Al Qaeda and others, such as the Taliban, are increasingly turning to crime to fund their operations.
For instance, Afghanistan's poppy crop provides perhaps half of the Taliban's income, according to US and UN analysts; al Qaeda is likely getting a cut, too.
Terror groups are also making money through smuggling and trafficking persons, the State Department reports. Those same networks are moving foreign fighters, particularly into Iraq - but could get terrorists into America as well.
The blood and sweat of brave Americans - plus international cooperation - has brought great strides in tackling terrorism. Al Qaeda's been its own worst enemy, alienating fellow Muslims with its brutal violence.
But this is no time to rest on our laurels. Al Qaeda and its affiliates continue to adapt their means and methods to our security measures - meaning we must evolve to the twists and turns in their terror tactics.
Peter Brookes is Chung Ju Yung Fellow and Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies.
First appeared in the New York Post