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.
There are Al Qaeda franchises, known and unknown, in conflict zones all over the map. Their numbers and their accomplishments have only continued to increase. It is tempting to look at over a decade without another 3,000 dead and declare victory, but that is missing the point. Al Qaeda hasn’t failed to carry out another September 11 because we beat it. It’s been busy doing something else.
A fundamental error of the War on Terror was a misreading of Islamic terrorists as reacting to us when in reality we were reacting to them and allowing them to shape the battlefield.
The foreign policy experts were unable to distinguish between motive and propaganda and assumed that Al Qaeda was motivated by grievances over American foreign policy when the terrorist group was listing any random argument it could throw together for a war that it was determined to start even if the United States had been governed by President Kucinich and his Department of Peace.
Al Qaeda attacked us because after the fall of its old enemy, the USSR, the United States was the only superpower left standing. Attacking America established its credibility, opened the wallets of wealthy Muslim oil millionaires and billionaires and allowed it to begin expanding its global network.
The United States of America was attacked as a representative of Western civilization for a Jihad that is meant to begin in the East and culminate in the West. The attacks on America allowed Al Qaeda to build its brand as the great enemy of the West and the champion of Islam. There was little that we could have done except fight back, but what we failed to do was fight intelligently and aim at the right targets.
Al Qaeda is now on its path to victory. That doesn’t mean that it will win, but an organization that has successfully evolved to launching crowd sourced terrorism against America while fielding guerrilla armies to capture cities in its next stage of warfare in the Middle East is not on a path to defeat. Instead it is moving through the second of Mao’s three phases of insurgency. The third stage is conventional war.