Lawrence Wright is one of the best journalists writing about al-Qaeda today. In addition to his outstanding book The Looming Tower, he has written a number of excellent pieces for The New Yorker (such as this one on Ayman al-Zawahiri and this one on the next generation of al-Qaeda strategists).
He recently posted some thoughts on al-Qaeda on a private listserve,
and kindly agreed to let me post them here. As with all guest posts,
the arguments are his, not mine, and I might or might not agree.
I think it's a terrible mistake to discount al-Qaeda's operational abilities, now and in the future.
If you read the accounts of al-Qaeda insiders, the war on terror was essentially over in December 2001, after U.S. and Coalition forces swept aside the Taliban and pummeled al-Qaeda. According to al-Qaeda's own inner circle, 80% of its members were captured or killed. Yes, the leaders escaped, but they were scattered, destitute, and unable to communicate with each other. The organization lived a kind of zombie existence, neither dead nor fully alive.
Iraq brought it back to life.
Al-Qaeda now has four major branches: Europe, Iraq, North Africa, and the old mother ship. Obviously, most of AQ's effort is in Iraq, but when the U.S. inevitably begins to withdraw from that country, AQ will be able to boast of an extraordinary victory over the last remaining superpower. The jihadis who went to Iraq will begin to return to their own countries, empowering the local cells, which have been proliferating in the Arab world and the west and which have only lacked a degree of high-level training to make them really lethal. These veterans, with their experience, their networks, and their resolve will become leaders of this new generation of jihadis. There is every reason to expect that they will be as cunning and dangerous as their predecessors, if not moreso.
Nor is the old AQ inoperable. Clearly, the leadership, bin Laden and Zawahiri, are able to direct their followers through their very active media organization, al-Sahab. The loss of their sanctuary in Afghanistan proved to be a temporary inconvenience; now AQ enjoys training facilities in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, the Sunni provinces of Iraq, in Mali, and probably still in Afghanistan and Somalia.
Al-Qaeda's ideologues and planners, such as Abu Bakr Naji, foresaw the need as early as 1998 to reorganize AQ in a more horizontal fashion, more like street gangs, as we have seen in Madrid and London. Yet we are learning that even these supposedly ad-hoc, indigenous groups had contact with AQ proper and may have received training in AQ camps.
There is a bitter irony in the fact that the Bush Adminstration resurrected its defeated foe by carrying the war to Iraq, a country that bin Laden had never placed on his list of profitable regions to wage jihad, simply because he knew it was a Shia-majority country. His rival and eventual protege, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, took that decision out of bin Laden's hands and forced a shift in al-Qaeda's strategy.
The lessons I draw from this are that AQ is stronger now than at any time since 9/11; that the war in Iraq has given AQ a tremendous propaganda victory; that the movement is both vast and nimble; that it will survive the deaths of any particular individuals; and that the prospects for long-term conflict with the U.S. and Europe are almost certain.