It is a terrible mistake to discount Al-Qaeda’s operational abilities, now and in the future. If you read the accounts of Al-Qaeda insiders, the war on terror was essentially over in December 2001, after United States and coalition forces swept aside the Taliban and pummeled Al-Qaeda. According to Al-Qaeda’s own inner circle, 80 percent of its members were captured or killed. Yes, the leaders escaped, but they were scattered, destitute and unable to communicate with each other. The organization lived a kind of zombie existence, neither dead nor fully alive. Iraq brought it back to life. Al-Qaeda now has four major branches: Europe, Iraq, North Africa and the old mother ship, centered in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan. Obviously, most of its effort is in Iraq, but when the US inevitably begins to withdraw from that country, Al-Qaeda will be able to boast of an extraordinary victory over the last remaining superpower. The jihadists who went to Iraq will begin to return to their own countries, empowering the local cells that have been proliferating in the Arab world and the West and have only lacked a degree of high-level training to make them really lethal. These veterans, with their experience, their networks and their resolve will become leaders of this new generation of jihadists. There is every reason to expect that they will be as cunning and dangerous as their predecessors, if not more so. Nor is the old Al-Qaeda inoperable. Clearly the leaders, Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri, are able to direct their followers through their very active media organization, Al-Sahab. Last year, bin Laden and Zawahiri issued more than 20 taped messages. One can see that even the Al-Sahab studio where Zawahiri tapes his diatribes has undergone an upgrade, with professional lighting and a more imaginative backdrop. Moreover, the messages have become much timelier in their commentary on current events, suggesting a freedom of action and a boldness that Al-Qaeda has not been able to enjoy since the fall of the Taliban. The elimination of the Al-Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan was a crucial victory in the war on terror. The training of Al-Qaeda recruits and the network of alliances formed in the camps fortified the terror organization with skilled operatives who enjoyed international reach. The loss of their sanctuary in Afghanistan proved a temporary inconvenience; now Al-Qaeda enjoys training facilities in areas of Pakistan, the Sunni provinces of Iraq, in Mali, and probably still in Afghanistan and Somalia. Al-Qaeda’s ideologues and planners, such as Abu Bakr Naji, foresaw the need as early as 1998 to reorganize the organization in a more horizontal fashion, more like street gangs, as we have seen in Madrid and London. Yet we are learning that even these supposedly ad-hoc indigenous groups had contact with Al-Qaeda proper and may have received training in Al-Qaeda camps. The London train bombings of 2005 illuminated the correspondence between native-born jihadists in the United Kingdom and Al-Qaeda camps in Pakistan – a stark and continuing danger for the UK, given its substantial Pakistani minority. The growth and new assertiveness of the North Africa branch of Al-Qaeda represents a similar threat to continental Europe, especially to Spain, France, and Belgium, home to large diaspora communities of Moroccans and Algerians. There is a bitter irony in the fact that the Bush administration resurrected its defeated foe by carrying the war to Iraq. This is a state that bin Laden had never placed on his list of profitable regions in which to wage jihad, simply because he knew it was a Shiite-majority country. His rival and eventual protégé, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, took that decision out of bin Laden’s hands and forced a shift in Al-Qaeda’s strategy. The lessons I draw from this are that Al-Qaeda is stronger now than at any time since 9/11; that the war in Iraq has given Al-Qaeda a tremendous propaganda victory; that the movement is both vast and nimble; that it will survive the deaths of any particular individuals; and that the prospects for long-term conflict with the US and Europe are almost certain.
Lawrence Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, is the author of “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. His one-man play, “My Trip to Al-Qaeda, opened in March at the Culture Project in New York City. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter that publishes diverse views of Middle Eastern and Islamic issues.