Contrary to exclamations from the Obama administration and the mainstream press, Al-Qaeda is not dead, not gone, and not “on its last legs.” In fact, the regional groups that together make up “Al-Qaeda” have had different fortunes in recent months, as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross reports for Foreign Policy, but its fighters are still out there:
This isn’t just a tale of three different organizations moving in different directions. Rather, al-Shabab and AQAP’s failures, along with AQIM’s apparent success, are related to the unique weaknesses and strengths of global jihadi efforts: Al Qaeda and its affiliates have been able to control territory at times but have not found much success in doing so. Their rigidity makes them ineffective governors, unable to truly win the sympathies of populations forced to endure their harsh, dystopian brand of Islamic law. Al Qaeda’s retreat from governance, however, does not render it irrelevant. The jihadi organization remains comfortable as an insurgent actor, adept at moving in the shadows and carrying out occasional, devastating strikes.
It seems that Al-Qaeda willingly hid from public view, regrouped, explored new areas of operation, trained, and gathered recruits, all before the 9/11/12 attack in Benghazi—and all amid repeated spiking of the football in Washington over the killings of Osama bin Laden and Abu Yahya al-Libi, among others.
Al Qaeda’s senior leadership, according to the report, had dispatched high-level operatives to Libya to bolster its network in the country. As of August, the Federal Research Division assessed that though a core network had been created in Libya, it “remains clandestine and refrains from using the al Qaeda name.” The report also judged that the network was expanding and had begun operating training camps and undertaking social media campaigns. These initial efforts to establish a network were initially undertaken by al Qaeda’s Pakistan-based leadership, but the report also predicted that AQIM would “join hands with the al Qaeda clandestine network in Libya.”
Americans have a pattern of prematurely declaring victory in these kinds of long, drawn-out struggles. Think back to Lyndon Johnson’s “light at the end of the tunnel” in Vietnam, the “death throes” of the Iraqi insurgency that Vice President Cheney thought he saw, and the triumphal crowing after bin Laden’s death that Al-Qaeda was on the verge of strategic defeat. We ought to be more careful declaring victory, especially when we aren’t exactly sure to begin with what victory would even look like.