What’s the truth about al Qaeda? Is it a powerful terrorist organization able to perform nuclear attacks on U.S. soil or is it just a bunch of jihadists spending their time dodging drone strikes and complaining about lack of money? Is it going to be defeated in a short time or is it bound to proliferate in Yemen and Somalia? What is “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”? Are Arab Revolutions which are shaking Middle East undermining its message of hate or will it benefit from the resulting power vacuum?
THE ANT THAT WAS THOUGHT TO BE AN ELEPHANT - An old proverb says: "If your enemy is an ant, imagine him to be an elephant." Nothing seems to synthesize the attitude of the United States towards al Qaeda in the past ten years better than those words. This is what comes out from new information discovered in Osama bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan. Fresh documents found in Abbottabad residential compound suggest sure enough that the United States has been vastly overstating al Qaeda's power for an entire decade. In the wake of Bin Laden’s killing, U.S. officials have come into possession of a large amount of al Qaeda files, which allegedly contain a wealth of information about how the organization has been working since 9/11. Even if the full report from the task force analyzing Abbottabad findings has not been made public yet, according to John Muller (Professor of Political Science at Ohio State University and Council on Foreign Relations contributor) it is going to reveal that the jihadist group has spent more time dodging drone strikes and complaining about lack of money than trying to get an atomic bomb. Notwithstanding al Qaeda's threatening rhetoric and occasional nuclear fantasies, it seems that its potential as a real threat has been overestimated: Pakistan-based organization has not conducted a successful operation against western countries since 2005.
DEATH OF AL QAEDA - And that's not all. If it's true that these reports indicate a weaker and weaker organization whose real power has been overestimated in the past, The Washington Post predicts that even harsher times lie ahead for al Qaeda. In particular, U.S. counterterrorism officials are increasingly convinced that the killing of Osama bin Laden and the toll of seven years of CIA drone strikes “have pushed al Qaeda to the brink of collapse” (they refer to the al Qaeda cell based in Pakistan, the core leadership that carried out 9/11 attacks, and not to the whole franchise worldwide). Such a result was seen as improbable since the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Indeed the old leader remained active in managing the network, keeping it focused on attacks against the United States and boosting proliferation of franchises overseas. Now, for the first time, the eradication of Pakistan-based al Qaeda cells looks achievable in the short term: according to CIA and other agencies a relatively small number of additional blows could effectively extinguish it.
ARAB REVOLUTION – Apart from drone strikes and Bin Laden death, it is the Arab Spring that could really inflict a deadly blow to al Qaeda: if the first two are killing the messengers, the second one could kill the message. Bin Laden and al Qaeda have been attempting to overthrow Arab governments for more than 20 years. If these democratic revolts succeed where violent jihad has failed, they will undermine and discredit al Qaeda ideology of terror. The dangerousness of the group was mainly due to the appealing call for violence carried out in the name of God which many Muslims perceived as the only way to change things. Now, regimes are falling under pressure from peaceful and secular protesters and al Qaeda is losing its propagandistic issue about repressive leaders to be dethroned. Finally, al Qaeda has always talked to young people, the same young people that are leading the revolution choosing peaceful protests and secular democracy instead of embracing jihad.
OVERESTIMATING IS BETTER THAN UNDERESTIMATING - It seems that al Qaeda is facing very hard times. Hard times that started with 9/11 attacks, when the organization became Washington number one enemy. Anyway, this doesn’t mean that violent jihad and terroristic menace are coming to an end. Maybe al Qaeda threat in the past has been overestimated, but the amount of jihadists killed or arrested and the number of plots foiled suggest that the group was active and willing to strike. Maybe the overrating of its force has been one of the reasons that made al Qaeda unable to perform new attacks. After all, the lesson from 9/11 is that – if underestimated - small bands of terrorists, using simple methods, can exploit loopholes in existing security systems.
SPRINGTIME FOR JIHADISTS - Arab revolutions may undermine al Qaeda's message, but terrorists could ultimately benefit from unrests and the resulting power vacuum. Where dictators have crumbled, nothing solid has replaced them yet and in countries where regimes hold on security services will probably make democratic dissenters their top priority becoming less effective against jihadists. This will result in an increased operational freedom for al Qaeda, especially if unrest turns to civil war. Another tricky issue is the role of Islamist parties (as Muslim Brotherhood) in the new administrations. Should they be left out from power, they will experience a new radicalization and revitalization of al Qaeda's message. On the contrary, should they be given a stronger role in government, this will lead to less Washington-friendly administrations, thus making United States fight against terrorism even more difficult.
AL QAEDA IN THE ARABIAN PENINSULA - Last but not least, even if the Pakistan-based al Qaeda is about to collapse, there are other regional affiliates that seem to be growing faster and stronger. An example of “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” is provided by Yemen-based cell. This is the most dangerous group of al Qaeda regional affiliates (it is responsible for several recent plots, including the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009 and the attempt to mail explosive parcels to U.S. addresses last year) and, according to Sen. Saxby Chambliss - member of the Senate intelligence committee - “is far from being defeated”. The Yemen-based group is exploiting the virtual collapse of Yemen's government to widen its control in the country and strengthen its operational ties with al Shabab, the Islamic militancy in Somalia.