Al Qaeda: A Threat of the Past?

The last attack on ‘Western’ soil by Al Qaeda was the 7/7 bombings in London. Since then, the elusive Osama bin Laden has been assassinated, along with much of the Al Qaeda leadership ranks, and there is little talk now of a ‘War on Terror’. Whilst some speak of Al Qaeda being a threat of the past, is this really true?

If you were to write a ‘score card’ for Al Qaeda over the last 15 years it would read something like this:

1998, bombing of US embassy in Nairobi

2000, bombing of the USS Cole in Aden,

2001, 9/11

2002, Bali

2003, Istanbul

2004: Madrid

2005: London

In September 2001, Al Qaeda became a household name across the globe by carrying out the most well-known terrorist attack in history. By 2005 it had attacked the US, Britain, Turkey, Indonesia, and forced one country, Spain, out of a war. It was universally feared. Since then, Al Qaeda attacks have continued to be a significant feature of international media and politics over the last seven years, (or at least attacks by groups with connections to Al Qaeda). Yet one point is noticeable: none of their attacks have been on ‘Western’ soil since 2005. What’s more, with the well documented series of drone-strikes and targeted assassinations (the most famous being the raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in May 2011), many people have been calling an end to the threat of Al Qaeda.  It must be said at this point, that attacks outside of Europe and the US have barely diminished in number or potency, a clear example being the series of bomb attacks that hit Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, in July of this year. Yet from a Western point of view, has the threat of Al Qaeda become a thing of the past?

Image courtesy of Hamid Mir, © 1997, some rights reserved.

To start with, it’s not been a case of going from 7/7 one month, to complete tranquillity thereafter. Since 2005, there have been numerous plans and attempted attacks and on the West, involving anything from shoes and underwear to printer cartridges. Even this summer there was the uncovering of a new underwear bomber attempt, originating from Yemen, and just over a fortnight ago there was an even more recent exposure by Jordanian counter-terrorism units of plans for an attack. So there have been many attempts of attacks on the West by Al Qaeda affiliates. Yet they haven’t been successful. Does this good record in counter-terrorism mean that the threat has been diminished or that we’ve just gotten better at dealing with the threat? Before jumping to conclude that the answer is the latter, consider the Obama Administrations’ “acknowledgment… that the AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular] may be the last remaining terrorist group that clings to bin Laden’s dream of striking on US soil.”[1] This statement draws attention to the fact that the majority of Islamist groups with, (or without) connection to ‘Al Qaeda’ have turned in recent years to local efforts, rather than the international attempts which brought them such fear and such publicity. By becoming localised, not only does the chance of these groups attacking the West seem to be lessened, but they have also partially alienated themselves from their communities, as they are swiftly becoming the bulk of the population who suffers from their actions. Indeed, the AQAP until this summer found refuge in Yemen and a blind eye from President Saleh. Yet once it struck the Yemeni military parade in Sana’a and made a bid to establish an autonomous region, the civil war they started ended in their defeat and dispersion.  Their ability to campaign for global jihadism can be no longer be carried out from Yemeni bases in relative peace and with impunity.  The fact that Islamist militant groups may be turning to more localised efforts would obviously decrease the threat to the West too.

However, there is another aspect to Al Qaeda that is often overlooked. That is the nature of the beast itself. Any idea that the organisation has existed as an evil empire is wrong. The bulk of ‘Al Qaeda’ is an extremely loose connection and interaction of Islamist groups, which all adopt the ‘Al Qaeda’ brand as a source of propaganda, publicity, help (there is still a small core of Al Qaeda proper which can lend its expertise, as can other affiliated groups, but the threat of attack is unlikely to come from here) and to an extent, legitimacy. Here is where Al Qaeda has often been misunderstood. Less a rigidly structured organisation and more a brand, it can largely be described as a way of thinking. This is precisely why it could never be ‘defeated’, and why it still remains a threat. Examples of its ideological appeal can be easily found. ‘Al Qaeda’ is commonly labelled as being an influencing factor in the attacks carried out by Major Nidal Malik (the 2009 Fort Hood Shooter) and the would-be 2010 Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad. In these instances ‘Al Qaeda’ is more an ideology, and less so a group.

So whilst the existence of a threat from an ‘Al Qaeda’ organisation seems to, in the eyes of the FBI and the United States, originate mostly from the AQAP, which has currently suffered from a US and Yemeni crackdown, ‘Al Qaeda’ the ideology will remain as great a threat as it was in 2000-2005.

[1] B Ghosh, ‘The End of Al-Qaeda?’ TIME Magazine (17th September 2012)

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