The grim anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001 has come and gone and the time is ripe for a reassessment of the global campaign against international terrorism and “violent extremism”—shorthand, in policy circles, for al Qaeda. Technically, that campaign began in the summer of 1998, in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, although it gained bureaucratic and political momentum only after 19 hijackers sent more than 3,000 people to oblivion.
Central to any such reassessment must be a fresh appraisal of the adversary. By all measures, al Qaeda has been badly weakened. The physical elimination of Osama Bin Laden—a long-overdue counterterrorism triumph—and the relentless pounding of the al Qaeda core in their Pakistani sanctuaries and redoubts—are obvious but powerful signs of the enterprise’s darkening prospects.
The recent forced retirement of Atiyah Abd al-Rahman in a reported US drone attack in Pakistan reminds us of the limited lifespan of anyone who assumes a senior operational post in the organization. With the possible exception of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based terror gang behind the attempted attack by the “underwear bomber” on an airliner on Christmas Day 2009, Al Qaeda has shown little evidence of any continued operational capability.
More importantly, al Qaeda has failed utterly in its efforts to achieve one of its paramount objectives. From the nineteenth century through the present day, terrorists and insurgents—ranging from transatlantic anarchists, to Fanonists of the tiers monde, to Nepalese Maoists—have nurtured and clung to insurrectionist fantasies. These perfervid imaginings have included the General Strike, the global proletarian revolution and, in the case of the salafist-jihadists, a worldwide Islamic uprising against perceived enemies of the faith.
However, the community of the faithful, the umma, has refused to play its assigned part in the al Qaeda dramaturgy. The anomic terrorism intended to spark a maelstrom of rebellion (like the anarchist “propaganda of the deed” of the nineteenth century and the Gueveraist “foco” strategy of the twentieth) has failed to arouse the masses. Moreover, al Qaeda has been irrelevant to the world-historical events sweeping the heartland of the Muslim world—the so-called Arab Spring (a phrase Rami Khouri urges should be jettisoned in favor of a more apt and more dignified description, namely the Arab “revolutionary moment”).
Not to say that al Qaeda isn’t a threat. At mentioned above, at least one al Qaeda affiliate retains a least some operational potency. Other groups, affiliated to varying degrees with the core, continue to create deadly mayhem in South Asia and North Africa. But to continue to characterize al Qaeda as a paramount threat—as the Obama administration does in recent policy statements—is to overstate the challenge. Although senior administration officials have toned down the overheated “global war on terrorism” (GWOT) rhetoric introduced during the George W. Bush presidency, Obama and his lieutenants continue to act with a wartime mindset. Indeed, according to the White House’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism (June 2011), the United States is “at war with a specific organization—al-Qa’ida.”
Given the greatly reduced nature of the threat—brought on by a combination of factors, including aggressive international military and intelligence operations, strengthened domestic security arrangements and, importantly, the self-limiting nature of the Al Qaeda project—it is appropriate to dial back and re-frame our approach.
Rather than maintain a permanent wartime footing, we need to recognize that we face an international criminal conspiracy. In the years ahead, law enforcement linked with aggressive intelligence gathering should be the focus of our counterterrorism efforts. We need to be honest with ourselves and recognize that the “war” is over—and that we won.
A summer resident of Rehoboth, William Rosenau, PhD is research analyst at CNA Strategic Studies, a non-profit research institute in Alexandria, VA and an adjunct professor in the Security Studies Program, Georgetown University. A version of this article appeared on the Atlantic.com website. The views expressed here are his own.