There is a clear and present danger of premature triumphalism when American counter-terrorism officials proclaim al-Qaeda is “on the brink of collapse.” As Daveed Garstenstein-Ross notes at National Review, we have been hearing such proclamations since 2003, and each time, al-Qaeda has managed to defy reports of its demise. In fact, the al-Qaeda network has shown an impressive ability to regenerate itself–hardly surprising since the resources needed to carry out a single terrorist attack, even one as high-profile as 9/11, are fairly small.
The only point I would add to Garstenstein-Ross’s excellent analysis is that we should remember “Islamist terrorism” does not necessarily mean “al-Qaeda.” Al-Qaeda is the most famous such group, and with 9/11 it managed to pull off the most damaging terrorist attack ever. But numerous other radicals are setting off bombs with scant direction or assistance from al-Qaeda Central. These organizations range from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Qaeda in Iraq to the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Haqqani Network, Hezbollah, Kataib Hezbollah and Hamas. None of these groups has pulled off an attack on the scale of 9/11, thank goodness, but several of them have undoubtedly killed far more people–and dominated far more territory–than al-Qaeda Central ever did.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq managed to take over a substantial portion of Sunni territory in Iraq before suffering devastating defeats in 2007-2008, but it continues to set off bombs. Hamas has taken over the Gaza Strip. Hezbollah is the most powerful force in Lebanon. The Pakistani Taliban are steadily undermining the government in Islamabad. Lashkar-e-Taiba has almost sparked war between India and Pakistan with its terrorist attacks in India. The Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network are on a counteroffensive to reestablish control of Afghanistan–a task made easier for them by President Obama’s premature withdrawal of troops. Khataib Hezbollah, along with other Shiite terrorist groups, is reasserting its power in Iraq as the U.S. prepares to withdraw.
In short, whatever the fate of al-Qaeda, the Islamist terrorist threat–of both the Shia and Sunni variety–remains very much with us. The only mistake worse than writing off al-Qaeda prematurely is to conflate its possible demise with the demise of the violent ideology it represents.