TERRORISM SALON: Matthew Levitt on the False Dichotomy


(Matthew Levitt is a Senior fellow and Director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy).
The either-or nature of the question misses the point. The reality is that we face BOTH a decentralized Al Qaeda manifested by self-radicalized or homegrown “bunches of guys” for whom the al Qaeda name is just a brand or symbol AND a centralized, core al Qaeda group which is still plotting and planning attacks from the Afghan/Pakistan frontier.
As I noted earlier in this discussion thread, the threat today comes from al Qaeda core, al Qaeda affiliates, and local cells. There is much to be said of both Sageman and Hoffman’s analyses, but the assumption that the core al Qaeda threat is behind us is simply belied by everything we hear from the intelligence and law enforcement communities. Recognizing the evolution toward a core group that functions as a type of symbolic leadership for a broad and decentralized movement is equally important. To date there is still no clear link between the Madrid bombers and the al Qaeda core. The link between al Qaeda and the London bombers, however, is pretty clear.
But it is also true that part of the successful evolutionary change within al Qaeda has been due to its resilience. Each time we take out an al Qaeda military commander (KSM, al-Libbi, Hamza al-Ribai…) another comes along. These terrorist tacticians, however, are far more important today than Bin Laden himself. Even within the al Qaeda core leadership, it is Ayman al-Zawahiri who is the brains behind the group, as is especially evident looking at the group’s media and propaganda efforts. Capturing or killing Bin Laden would be a major psychological blow to al Qaeda (and perhaps more so to the local and independent but like-minded fellow travelers), and it would be a significant accomplishment and morale booster for the Western coalition, but it would do nothing to actually harm, diminish the capabilities of or undercut support for al Qaeda. Al Qaeda today has outgrown Bin Laden.
— Matthew Levitt
This week long terrorism salon will continue to be hosted by The Washington Note and UN Dispatch.


5 comments on “TERRORISM SALON: Matthew Levitt on the False Dichotomy

  1. Paul Norheim says:

    According to Seymour Hersh, they rejected the idea because it
    would require a setting where Americans were shooting at
    If Hersh is correct and that meeting actually took place, I would
    suggest that this scenario was too close to the Gulf of Tonkin
    incident in 1964 as well. Dick Cheney is old enough to
    remember that event – and was involved in all the trouble when
    the lies were revealed (“The Pentagon Papers”).
    An improved variation of the incident that led to an escalation
    of the Vietnam war…I`m sure Hersh saw that parallel too.
    For very young people, the Vietnam era seem like some ancient
    wars they`ve read about in history books. For current foreign
    policy players and reporters, like Cheney, Hersh, Woodward,
    Rumsfeld, Powell, Baker, Scowcroft, Kissinger, Brzezinski and
    McCain, the current crisis is connected to the Vietnam and
    Watergate crisis. There is no way for outsiders to really
    understand if these players are trying to solve a conflict from
    the 1970`s or a current crisis. Or even if that distinction make
    any sense for the players or reporters who were young at that


  2. pauline says:

    Mr Levitt,
    Would you consider this a “local cell”?
    “Speaking at the Campus Progress journalism conference earlier this month, Seymour Hersh — a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist for The New Yorker — revealed that Bush administration officials held a meeting recently in the Vice President’s office to discuss ways to provoke a war with Iran.
    In Hersh’s most recent article, he reports that this meeting occurred in the wake of the overblown incident in the Strait of Hormuz, when a U.S. carrier almost shot at a few small Iranian speedboats. The “meeting took place in the Vice-President’s office. ‘The subject was how to create a casus belli between Tehran and Washington,’” according to one of Hersh’s sources.
    During the journalism conference event, I asked Hersh specifically about this meeting and if he could elaborate on what occurred. Hersh explained that, during the meeting in Cheney’s office, an idea was considered to dress up Navy Seals as Iranians, put them on fake Iranian speedboats, and shoot at them. This idea, intended to provoke an Iran war, was ultimately rejected:
    HERSH: There was a dozen ideas proffered about how to trigger a war. The one that interested me the most was why don’t we build — we in our shipyard — build four or five boats that look like Iranian PT boats. Put Navy seals on them with a lot of arms. And next time one of our boats goes to the Straits of Hormuz, start a shoot-up.”
    see —


  3. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Frankly, its disappointing to see Levitt allowed such unfettered access to a Clemons’ supplied soap box. Today I’ll spend over $75.00 just getting to and from my jobsite, and will have to swing by a cabinet shop that is in Lamont, CA. When in Lamont, one dares not park where you can’t see your rig, and excursions onto the sidestreets is actually dangerous for a gringo and legal citizen of the US.
    This scam, the GWOT, is diverting attention from the huge issues that are adversely affecting all but the upper income elite. The EPA, the DOJ, both shown to be working against the best interests opf the American people, and nothing more than ass suckin’ lap dogs for these criminals in the White House AND CONGRESS. Exxon shows record profits, and jobs are getting shipped overseas at an exponential rate. ‘Scuse me if I’m just a bit pissed at the fear mongering natter of these neocon jackasses like Levitt, but it isn’t as though their “thinking” has exactly improved the lot of Middle America. These deep thinking apologists for eight years of unmittigated disaster got us into this mess. Sorry if I don’t have much faith in their ability to get us out of it.
    While this Levitt mouthpiece screams how endangered I am by some Islamic wackjob, I’ll be dodging meth addicted gangbangers while consuming $4.25 a gallon gas, and wondering how the hell I’m going to afford the medical tests my physician recommends. Levitt’s job is to scare me into not thinking about it.


  4. JohnH says:

    The Rand Corporation goes where Michael Levitt won’t: “What’s needed, the report suggests, is a “fundamental rethinking of U.S. strategy” to focus on MINIMIZING OVERT MILITARY ACTION and increasing intelligence collection and partnerships with law enforcement agencies around the world.”
    Why is it that neocons believe that there is a military solution to every problem, and it is usually the solution of choice? Could it be that they are largely underwritten by merchants of death?


  5. JohnH says:

    With the neocon’s goals for owning Iraq and Iran not faring so well, it’s time to double down on the Al Qaeda bogeyman…


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