A Changing Threat: Al-Qaeda Eight Years Later

11/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Peter Henne postdoctoral Senior Researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism

The morning of September 11th, 2001 still weighs heavily on my mind. It was my second week of college, and I -- two hours outside of New York City -- was slowly adjusting to leaving my family in Pennsylvania when news of the attack reached my college. As the days passed, my classmates and I regained a sense of normalcy, but two sensations persisted past that tragic morning: imminent danger and anxious uncertainty. Eight years later, the imminence has faded but the uncertainty remains. Our greatest challenge now is to prevent this uncertainty from masking the seriousness of the threat al-Qaida (AQ) poses to America.

The American perception of AQ has developed greatly since 2001. President Bush's "global war on terror" -- sustained in part through GOP threat inflation -- has largely been discredited, with President Obama and Congressional Democrats reformulating US counterterrorism policy. Yet, the public appears uncertain of the threat AQ currently poses, and wary of Obama's approach. Confusing this uncertainty with an actual decline in AQ's significance, however, is misguided.

A brief survey of recent news stories on AQ illustrates why:

• US citizens in both Long Island, NY and North Carolina have been accused of supporting terrorist activities, some linked directly to AQ.

• AQ affiliates in both Algeria and Yemen continue to conduct serious attacks, such as the attempted assassination of a Saudi Prince by the latter. The affiliates are sustained by aid from AQ and political safe-havens created by regional instability.

• Individuals tied to AQ have emerged recently in several countries, including Russia and the Philippines.

These incidents present an image of AQ that is neither innocuous nor the existential bogeyman of right-wing imagination. AQ is a shadowy network ranging from the United States to Southeast Asia, intent on spreading a radical form of Islam and attacking US interests. Yet, this does not mean it is a monolithic threat waiting to pounce as soon as Americans question the Bush-era use of torture.

Instead, AQ operates through four distinct but related methods. First, AQ takes advantage of safe-havens like the Afghan-Pakistan border to train recruits and launch attacks. Second, it forms alliances with indigenous Muslim groups who are often motivated by local concerns rather than religion; AQ provides material support to these groups, leading some of them to adopt its cause. Third, AQ recruits fighters to travel to conflict areas and conduct savage attacks, as occurred in Iraq. Finally, AQ uses its impressive propaganda machine to spread its message through satellite television and the internet. The result is a terrorist network whose exact workings are shrouded in uncertainty but still poses a threat to US interests.

Three conclusions emerge from the current state of AQ. First, AQ can greatly influence local conflicts but does not control them; the United States must work to disrupt AQ operatives while engaging local actors to resolve disputes. Second, AQ will exploit the lack of stable, democratic governments, so US policy must focus on reforming and developing weak and failed states to prevent this exploitation. Finally, AQ's greatest weapon is not its bombs but its voice, and the threat it will hijack discourse in the Muslim world, which requires a concerted US outreach campaign to counteract.

Fortunately, Obama is pursuing all these policies. In Afghanistan, Obama has attempted to differentiate between hard-core AQ supporters and local fighters to undermine broad support for AQ and its Taliban allies, an approach that should be applied elsewhere. He also emphasizes economic and social development in Afghanistan to dissolve terrorist safe-havens. Finally, beginning with his excellent speech on US-Muslim relations in Turkey this Spring, Obama has launched a public diplomacy campaign that will help to restore a positive American image among Muslim societies.

These efforts will be tough. Obama has to make up for years of GOP mistakes. Also, his nuanced approach is not as simple as either Bush-style militarism or isolationism, but is most appropriate to deal with the nebulous network AQ has become. Our struggle against AQ -- from Afghanistan to Algeria -- will be difficult, with progress clouded in uncertainty. But we can succeed. If the American people realize the nature of AQ and the potential value of Obama's counterterrorism strategy, we can ensure that the terror of 9/11 remains a memory.