There are two ways of looking at Osama bin Laden’s death. One is to see his end surrounded by wives, pornography and unanswered messages to Al Qaeda leaders who were no longer taking orders from him as the fall of the leader of a failed movement.
The other is to see his death in a walled compound at the heart of the Pakistani military order that had protected him as the fading away of a retired figure in a movement that had outgrown him.
The debate over whether Al Qaeda is on the path to victory or defeat is also a debate over what Al Qaeda is. A vocal school of thought among some foreign experts of the left was that there was no Al Qaeda. The updated version of that thesis was embraced by Obama and some of his subordinates looking to do an end zone dance and hang up the Mission Accomplished banner by celebrating victory over the core of Al Qaeda and dismissing its affiliates, some of which number in the tens of thousands and are fighting to take over entire countries, as Obama put it, as Jayvee players in Lakers uniforms.
But what if the decline of the core Al Qaeda and the growth of its affiliates is the next step? What if the Lakers decided that they don’t need one really good team, but a hundred smaller teams in every city because they want to capture the entire game?
The men hanging up the Mission Accomplished banner in the East Room of the White House say that Al Qaeda can no longer stage another September 11. They may be right, though as with the last attack, we may end up discovering that they are wrong the hard way, but they are also missing the point.
The handful of Al Qaeda still hanging around Afghanistan are probably not going to pull off another spectacular terrorist attack in America, if such an attack did happen it would come out of cells in Europe or the US by terrorists who were born in the West, but who have learned the business from the ground up in Syria or in training camps in Yemen.
Or it may come from one of the Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria out to prove that it can wear the NBA Jihad uniform the same way that the original team did… by killing large numbers of Americans.
September 11 was a calling card that served its purpose for Al Qaeda moving it along to its next stage from a series of isolated terror groups to a global army with the manpower to launch full scale guerrilla wars seizing cities and entire regions. The core Al Qaeda doesn’t need another September 11. It will leave that to its affiliates, some of which are already playing with WMDs.
The Al Qaeda that we think we know, the terrorist group with cells lurking and plotting attacks, was only an intermittent stage in its growth strategy. The same is true of most terrorist groups. There was a time when the Communists were just another bunch of quarreling groups. Then they became an army and a country and a whole global union of countries. That is where Al Qaeda wanted to go all along.
Al Qaeda wants to destroy America, but it doesn’t need it to do it in the linear fashion that many imagined after September 11, by scaling up to more and more devastating attacks.
The ‘smaller and smarter’ drone strikes approach to Al Qaeda touted by Obama (if you don’t count the +1500 soldiers killed in Afghanistan) postdates a ‘smaller and smarter’ Al Qaeda approach to America.
Al Qaeda has crowdsourced terrorism to domestic “lone wolf” attackers like the Tsarnaev brothers and Nidal Hasan. Most of the attacks have failed, but as the Boston Marathon massacre reminds us, they only need to succeed once and Al Qaeda doesn’t lose any money or resources on them if they fail.
Its vision for Islamic terrorism in America is a domestic franchise, Al Qaeda in America, made up of American Muslims who are young, online and blend easily into a crowd the way the Tsarnaevs did.
Eventually it envisions Syrian style insurgencies in Western countries and while it may take a while before there are enough Muslims in America to make that a viable proposition, there are European countries whose Muslim demographics are severe enough that they have less time before the war.
This international Islamic revolution with franchises emerging everywhere, going from lone wolf attacks based on training manuals, graduating to terror cells and then to guerrilla armies and finally to emirates that swallow up entire countries is the transformative process that Al Qaeda was meant to undergo.
Al Qaeda has become less of a command center and more of a model to its franchises. Some terror experts read this as a decline, when it’s really a mission accomplished. It means that Al Qaeda has served its purpose as a base. It hasn’t lost, it has won. And the war moves on to the next stage.
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