Last week, with the 10th anniversary of 9/11 fast approaching, White House counterterrorism boss John Brennan told the Associated Press that al Qaeda is “on a steady slide,” “on the ropes” and “taking shots to the body and head.” But is al Qaeda really facing the agony of defeat?
While Brennan may be spot-on if he’s referring to “al Qaeda’s core” -- that part of the terror group associated with 9/11 and holed up in Pakistan’s tribal areas -- it may not be true for al Qaeda globally.
Of course, the recent killing of Osama bin Laden during a US special-ops raid in Pakistan was a major body blow to the terror group, especially from an inspirational and ideological standpoint. It’s also awesome that a US drone took out Atiyah al Rahman in Pakistan last month, offing al Qaeda’s new No. 2 right after he’d replaced Ayman al Zawahiri, the Egyptian who moved up to replace Osama as No. 1.
But al Qaeda these days is increasingly decentralized -- and as dangerous as ever.
For instance, there’s al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, home-based in Yemen. Many counterterror specialists believe AQAP is actually the most dangerous element in al Qaeda’s global network today.
Among its leaders is Anwar al Awlaki, the US-born Yemeni cleric who had contact with the 9/11 hijackers and has been linked to the Fort Hood shooter and the Detroit Underwear Bomber.
AQAP may already control territory in Yemen’s South, even as the central government teeters on collapse in the Arab Spring’s aftermath -- just what the group needs to plan and train for its next terror plot.
AQAP is also increasingly networked with al Shabab, an al Qaeda wing that is a growing problem across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia, a lawless country probably best known for its bands of modern-day pirates.
The State Department has called al Shabab the “most significant threat in East Africa.” Experts worry that it will train foreign fighters, who’ll return home to Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda -- and beyond, including the United States.
West Africa, meanwhile, is seeing the rise of a new al Qaeda club called Boko Haram (“Western education is sinful”), operating in Nigeria, Africa’s largest US oil supplier and most populous country.
Boko Haram was fingered for the August suicide attack on a UN building in Abuja, killing more than 20 people. Its fighters are thought to have gotten training from al Shabab and an Algerian-based terror group, al Qaeda in the Maghreb.
AQIM is active in North and West Africa, responsible for the kidnappings of foreigners and bombings as recently as last month. And there’s concern about what it might have up its sleeve for Libya.
Also seemingly on the offensive: Al Qaeda in Iraq, which is testing local security forces as US troops withdraw. AQI conducted a coordinated campaign last month involving near-simultaneous attacks in almost 20 Iraqi cities.
Of course, there are others with al Qaeda ties, too, including the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban (which trained the Times Square bomber) and Lashkar e Taiba (responsible for the Mumbai attacks).
So while Brennan makes a seemingly fair point about al Qaeda’s core, the struggle against Islamist intolerance and violence unfortunately doesn’t appear to be over quite yet.
With no less than 40 terror plots here since 9/11 -- not to mention successful hits at Fort Hood, the Little Rock military-recruiting center and the LAX ticket counter -- the last thing we should be is complacent about al Qaeda or its cronies.
Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.
First appeared in the New York Post