(Peter Bergen is a Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation).
Some of the issues in the final discussion I tried to address in a story for TIME earlier this month, so rather than rewriting that story I’m pasting it in below:
Does Osama bin Laden matter anymore? You could be forgiven for thinking he doesn’t. In recent months, an impressive cast of terrorism experts and counterterrorism officials around the world has coalesced around the notion that al-Qaeda’s leader is no longer an active threat to the West. They point out that he has not been able to strike on U.S. soil since 9/11 or in Europe since the London bombings three summers ago. In Iraq, his most successful franchise operation is on the ropes. Across the Muslim world, opinion polls suggest his popularity has faded, and many of his early supporters — including prominent jihadi ideologues — have denounced him. Even his messages on the Internet scarcely merit headlines in the mainstream media. Did you know he posted two audio messages on the Web in May? I didn’t think so.
The jihad, some experts contend, has moved beyond bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Dr. Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer, lays out the view in his new book, Leaderless Jihad, arguing that “the present threat has evolved from a structured group of al-Qaeda masterminds controlling vast resources and issuing commands to a multitude of info rmal groups trying to emulate their predecessors by conceiving and executing operations from the bottom up. These ‘homegrown’ wannabes form a scattered global network, a leaderless jihad.” According to this assessment, two decades since its founding in Peshawar, Pakistan, al-Qaeda remains a source of inspiration for certain extremists around the world. But it’s far from clear that bin Laden commands them.
This view was shared by several European officials I met at a conference of terrorism experts in Florence in May, a few days after bin Laden’s most recent Internet postings. The officials told me they’ve found no evidence of al-Qaeda operations in their countries. If bin Laden has any role in the jihad, say the Europeans, it is merely as an icon. Alain Grignard, Belgium’s top terrorism investigator, says bin Laden is now a “Robin Hood figure; 100 people are inspired by him, but very few respond to do what he wants.”
If that’s true, why do so many political leaders continue to warn about the threat — or even the likelihood — of another major terrorist attack? Why did the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate say al-Qaeda “has protected or regenerated key elements of homeland attack capability”? Why would the head of Britain’s domestic intelligence service, MI5, say there were 2,000 citizens and other U.K. residents who posed a serious threat to security, a number of whom took direction from al-Qaeda? The struggle against al Qaeda — and to a lesser extent, the quest to capture bin Laden — has20dominated U.S. foreign policy since 9/11.
But as the U.S. prepares to elect a new President, should that remain the case? The answers to these questions don’t lend themselves to easy policy prescriptions. But the best available evidence suggests that the threat posed by bin Laden’s acolytes hasn’t been extinguished– and his own influence over them is greater than many analysts acknowledge. In his old stomping grounds, the jihad is stronger than at any time since he fled from the Tora Bora mountains in the winter of 2001. The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan militant groups have grown so aggressive that in late June they even threatened to take over a major city — Peshawar, once bin Laden’s home and the birthplace of al-Qaeda. Farther away, extremists in Europe and North Africa continue to covet bin Laden’s blessing and the al-Qaeda brand name.
As has always been true in shadowy, borderless wars, measuring the strength of the enemy isn’t an exact science. It’s true that many of the “leaderless jihadis” have set up operations independently of al-Qaeda, but when they turn to bin Laden’s organization, it’s not just for inspiration but also for training, assistance and direction — in short, for leadership. Many are able and willing to do bin Laden’s bidding; they pay very careful attention to his Internet postings and follow his instructions. And although their targets have generally been close to home, their association with al-Qaeda has tended to take their ambitions beyond their borders.
What’s more, many of these homegrown wannabes live in the West. It was al-Qaeda’s direct involvement that helped a leaderless group of British jihadis mount the multiple London bombings on July 7, 2005, that killed 52 commuters. Two of the bombers had traveled to Pakistan, met with al-Qaeda commanders and made martyrdom tapes with al-Qaeda’s video- production arm there. A year later, British investigators uncovered a plot by another cell of British Pakistanis to bring down seven American and Canadian passenger jets. According to Lieut. General Michael Maples, head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, the plotters received direction from al-Qaeda in Pakistan.
Bin Laden’s interest in British jihadis didn’t end there. Jonathan Evans, head of MI5, said last year that “over the past five years, much of the command, control and inspiration for attack-planning in the U.K. has derived from al-Qaeda’s remaining core leadership in the tribal areas of Pakistan.” U.S. officials, too, worry that a new generation of jihadis is making the trek to Pakistan, seeking al-Qaeda’s assistance. Sixteen U.S. intelligence agencies signed off on a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that concluded that al-Qaeda has made a strong comeback in Afghanistan and Pakistan because it has found “a safe haven in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas [FATA] in Pakistan” for its operational lieutenants and top leadership. In February, Michael McConnell, director of National Intelligence, said in congressional testimony that there had bee n an “influx of new Western recruits into the tribal areas since mid-2006.” Philip Mudd, the former No. 2 in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, who is now working at the FBI to help improve its intelligence capabilities, told me, “There is a very clear, almost mathematical increase in lethality as soon as plotters touch the FATA.”
If jihadis seek material assistance from al-Qaeda in the FATA, they can get guidance from bin Laden almost anywhere there’s an Internet connection. He has issued more than two dozen video- and audiotaped messages since 9/11, and some of his exhortations have been acted upon. For instance, in December 2004, bin Laden called for attacks on Saudi oil facilities; in February 2006, al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia attacked the Abqaiq facility, perhaps the most important oil-production facility in the world. (Luckily, that attack was a failure.) More recently, bin Laden has called for attacks on the Pakistani state — there were more than 50 suicide bombings there in 2007, and there have been at least 19 thus far this year.
There’s some comfort to be drawn from the fact that bin Laden has not been able to strike on U.S. soil since 9/11. There is scant evidence of al-Qaeda sleeper cells in the U.S. Thanks to more effective intelligence-gathering, immigration control and the heightened vigilance of ordinary Americans, it is very hard for terrorists to slip into the country. It’s always possible that homegrown wannabes will mount some sort of attack, but in contrast to the situation in Europe, al-Qaeda’s virulent ideology has found few takers in the American Muslim community.
Yet bin Laden remains determined to kill large numbers of Westerners and disrupt the global economy. Since 9/11, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have bombed Western-owned hotels around the Muslim world, attacked a number of Jewish targets and conducted suicide operations against oil facilities in the Middle East; we can expect more of the same in the future. Al-Qaeda has also used new tactics and weapons — like the surface-to-air missile that nearly brought down an Israeli airliner in Kenya in 2002. And it retains a long-standing desire to acquire a radiological bomb. But al-Qaeda’s most dangerous weapon has always been unpredictability. That’s why it is dangerous to dismiss bin Laden as a spent force. While he remains at large, the jihad will never be leaderless.