The Washington Post has the umpteenth story today announcing the imminent demise of al-Qaeda. This one is more convincing than most because it focuses on the organization’s decline since the elimination of Osama bin Laden. The Post account declares that there are only two “high value” leaders remaining in al-Qaeda–Ayman al-Zawahiri and his No. 2, Abu Yahya al-Libi–and that according to U.S. intelligence officials, their “demise would mean the group’s defeat.”
The seeming certainty of this judgment is somewhat undermined down below where the article casually refers to “the organization’s estimated few hundred remaining followers in Pakistan.” Did al-Qaeda ever have more than a few hundred followers in Pakistan? And what is to say that some of those “followers” could not become leaders even if Zawahiri and Libi are eliminated? That concern is reason enough to maintain the pressure in Pakistan rather than moving the CIA’s drones to other battle fronts too soon.
Even more reason to maintain resources in and around Pakistan (Afghanistan remains our most reliable regional base) is the fact that it is home to so many other terrorist organizations, such as the Pakistani Taliban, Lashkar e Taiba, and the Haqqani Network, which are plotting to kill Americans and our allies: The Haqqanis have carried out numerous deadly attacks against Americans in Afghanistan while the Pakistani Taliban supported an attempted car-bombing in Times Square.
This points to a larger concern that I have voiced before and will reiterate now: Even if al-Qaeda can’t recover from bin Laden’s death, that hardly means the threat of Islamist extremism is over. There are numerous other groups ready to fill the vacuum left behind by al-Qaeda, and many of them–from the Haqqanis to Hamas and Hezbollah–are stronger than they have ever been. The Arab Spring is providing further opportunities for them (or their sympathizers ) to seize power in a chaotic climate. The battle against Islamist terrorism is far from over; it is merely changing shape.
The historical analogy which springs to mind is the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party’s Combat Organization, which was the main perpetrator of terrorism before and during the 1905 Revolution. It subsequently went into steep decline. Russian officials may have been tempted to declare victory in their own “war against terrorism” were it not for the fact that the SR Combat Organization were displaced by an even more malign group–the Bolsheviks.