By Brigitte L. Nacos
While the first anniversary of Osama in Laden’s death is reason enough to assess the status quo of the terrorist organization he founded and chaired, President Obama’s claim that the defeat of Al Qaeda “is now within reach” deserves a closer look.
There is no doubt that the demise of bin Laden was the most devastating blow against the original Al Qaeda organization or Al Qaeda Central, a close-knit group of extremist Arabs, some of whom had fought in Afghanistan against Soviet troops during the 1980s--with covert support by the CIA. Targeted relentlessly by pilotless drones in the mountains of Pakistan, the bulk of Al Qaeda Central’s core of sub-leaders serving under bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri, now the sole Al Qaeda boss, was decimated.
Although the president’s opponents, most of all in the neo-conservative camp, try hard to paint him as another Democrat who is weak on defense and national security, the truth is that Obama has been far more decisive in fighting Al Qaeda militarily than his Republican predecessor. The lethal raid against bin Laden was merely the exclamation mark on a successful military campaign against Al Qaeda Central members and their Taliban allies.
So, if President Obama meant to say that the defeat of Al Qaeda Central is within reach, his optimism is justified.
But Al Qaeda Global is another story.
The problem here is that Al Qaeda’s ideology has proven far stronger and more durable than Al Qaeda Central. Al Qaeda as powerful idea has spread like a virus around the world. While fanatic Arabs and Muslims, terrorists and insurgents in many countries claim to have direct ties to Al Qaeda Central and have sworn allegiance to the original group, what they mostly or solely share with the original bin Laden clique is the idea of fighting U.S.-led Western powers and their allies in the Muslim world, what bin Laden repeatedly described as a Huntingtonian clash of civilizations, cultures, and, most of all, religions.
President Obama is surely aware of this. After all, he himself has authorized increased drone strikes against self-proclaimed Jihadists and Al Qaeda allies in Yemen and against Al Shabaab in Somalia. While these and many other groups in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and in the Western diaspora articulate the same ideas as Al Qaeda, they are autonomous and not at all affiliated of the original group.
Unlike Al Qaeda Central, the cells and nodes in the global network of terrorists which are inspired by bin Laden and Al Qaeda present a far greater problem for counterterrorist strategies and tactics than the hierarchically organized original group.
Al Qaeda Central may be on the verge of defeat. But the defeat of Al Qaeda as inspirational force is not within reach.