A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in July 2007 assessed that al-Qaeda had “protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability, including: a safehaven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), operational lieutenants, and its top leadership.”1 It was not as comfortable for the group as Taliban-controlled Afghanistan had been before the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the group had lost many key personnel over the years, but the Pakistan safe haven allowed al-Qaeda to act with virtual impunity to plan, train for, and mount attacks. In 2009, however, U.S. officials frequently touted al-Qaeda’s unprecedented losses of mid-level to senior commanders since the NIE—at mid-year, for example, as many as “11 out of 20 of the Pentagon’s most wanted-list”2—to concerted strikes by U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the FATA. The casualties also have included prominent regional leaders who helped facilitate al-Qaeda’s safe haven, such as Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, killed in August. Terrorism specialists increasingly characterized al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as a mere figurehead, and at least before September 2009, it appeared that al-Qaeda had been unable to train operatives for attacks in Western countries since mid-2008 or earlier.
The arguments are compelling, but analysts have pronounced al-Qaeda dead or dying several times since it was driven fromAfghanistan. In mid-2003, for example, it looked as if the group would not recover from the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the jailing of other senior leaders in Iran, but it went on to support devastating attacks in Saudi Arabia and Turkey that year, train operatives for attacks elsewhere, and strengthen its overseas presence. If we measure al-Qaeda’s condition today by the criteria in the 2007 NIE, we would have to say that concerted, multi-front counterterrorist operations have had an impact and probably weakened the group in its mid-to-senior ranks—possibly the worst damage since 2001. It has failed to mount an attack in a Western country since 2005, but we cannot definitively say al-Qaeda now lacks the capacity to mount an operation of some sort in the United States. The top leadership—bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri—is still functioning, even though little is publicly known about them beyond their media presence. Although the capability of the group’s operational lieutenants is unclear, al-Qaeda continues to coordinate operations with allies such as the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, and it retains contacts in other countries who may be able to act in its name. The group certainly still benefits from the same safe haven in the FATA and seems firmly entrenched there. Arrests this year of suspected al-Qaeda operatives in Western countries, including the United States, speak not only to the group’s weaknesses, since its attacks were thwarted, but also to its persistence in its mission despite setbacks.
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Barbara Sude, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, is a former al-Qaeda analyst at the CIA. She has a doctorate from Princeton University in Near Eastern Studies, specializing in Medieval Islam.