The Skeptics

Why Al-Qaeda May Never Die

Outside the White House after Osama bin Laden's death on May 1, 2011.The first anniversary of the murderous raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideaway presents an opportunity to evaluate the threat al-Qaeda now poses. For its part, the Obama administration/reelection campaign seems more interested in using the event to score political points against Mitt Romney. But terrorism alarmists are more focused on al-Qaeda itself and are in peak form explaining that, although the organization has been weakened, it still manages to present a grave threat.

Various techniques, honed over a decade, are applied to support this contention. If they are accepted as valid, al-Qaeda will cease to exist or be “defeated” only when we run entirely out of tiny groups or individual nuts operating with al-Qaeda-like aspirations.

One technique is to espy and assess various “linkages” or “connections” or “ties” or “threads” between and among a range of disparate terrorists or terrorist groups, most of which appear rather gossamer and of only limited consequence on closer examination.

Another is to darkly elevate the vague and the distinctly aspirational as if there were some tangible potential there. Thus, al-Qaeda’s “ideology of the global jihad” still “survives,” we are told, and the group is “making provisions for the long term;” is “poised to survive;” “is regrouping;” is “not entirely isolated;” might work with Iran because “they share a common enemy;” has been “embraced” by a Nigerian group with purely local concerns; has provided “strategic advice;” has “inspired” a number of inept would-be amateur terrorists here and there; and has been thinking about plotting the assassination of Barack Obama.

A third technique is to exaggerate the importance and effectiveness of the “affiliated groups” linked to al-Qaeda central. In particular, alarmists point to the al-Qaeda affiliate in chaotic Yemen, proclaiming it to be the “deadliest” and the “most aggressive” of these and a “major threat.”

Insofar as it threatens the United States, the Yemen group has been elevated by two efforts at international terrorism, both of which failed abysmally.

It apparently supplied the 2009 underwear bomber with an explosive that he was unable to detonate, one that, a test by the BBC suggests, might not have downed his plane even if it had gone off.

The other failure is the foiled effort to set off bombs contained within laser printers on planes bound for the United States in 2010. The organization explained that one of their packages contained a copy of Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations to express its optimism about the operation’s success even as the group promised more such attacks. The optimism, and thus far the promise, have gone unfulfilled.

With that track record, the group may pose a problem or concern to the United States. But it scarcely presents a “major threat.”

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