The summer of 2011 through the end of 2012 will be the most important period for al Qaeda (AQ) and Western Counterterrorism (CT) efforts since 2002-2003. A plethora of different factors suggest that Bin Laden and AQ Central based in Pakistan must act soon or risk becoming irrelevant. Here are some key issues which make me believe the next 12-18 months will be truly decisive for AQ:
- Ten years later, actions speak louder than words– AQ’s senior leadership (AQSL) has not produced a major terrorist attack in years. Western CT efforts have foiled many a plot. Those plots AQSL has taken credit for were largely accomplished by upstarts not directly under their command (Examples: Zarqawi and the Madrid bombers). UBL may have played the information war well, but he and his sidekicks have not been operationally successful in a long while. Actions speak louder than words. AQAP and al Shabab increasingly attract as many or more recruits than AQ Central because they fight as much as they talk.
- Absent from the Arab uprisings– Despite their ideological banter about removing apostate regimes, AQ missed out on all the current revolutions. Terrorists groups must retain popular support to remain relevant. While AQ toiled away in its global jihad against the far enemy, their base of popular support shifted to something attainable; liberation at home. AQ must immediately find a way to assert itself within these revolutions or risk being overshadowed by new Arab movements and leaders.
- UBL is moving– After sitting tight for ten years, several reports suggest UBL is energized and on the move. While I think its highly unlikely he will try to move from his Pakistan safe haven, UBL must be concerned about his long-run preservation and AQ’s future to take such operational risks to sustain relationships.
- Pro-AQ Taliban losing ground– Taliban commanders in Pakistan have taken a beating in recent months. Pakistani security forces, targeted assassinations and drone strikes have finally taken their toll. AQ doesn’t have time to waste.
- Yemeni instability and opportunity– The Yemeni security vacuum created by recent rebellions and the violent government crackdown provide opportunities for both AQ and the West. In recent weeks, AQAP has reportedly conducted several ambushes and seized several towns. This rebellion is likely the most challenging for Western CT efforts.
- Fighters heading home– AQ members from North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula must wonder, “why should we stay in Afghanistan and Pakistan?” If AQ foreign fighters can choose between fighting jihad abroad or fighting jihad at home, I believe they will choose their homeland first. Yemeni, Egyptian, Libyan, Syrian and Tunisian foreign fighters within AQ must be seeking an opportunity in their homelands. I imagine the peak flow of foreign fighters to Afghanistan has passed.
- New Statements from all AQ leaders– UBL, Zawahiri, Libi, Adl and Awlaki have all issued propaganda citing the recent revolts as sign of AQ’s coming domination. AQ must redirect the discussion of revolution to include them. The only way to make these statements seem credible is to actually join one of the current rebellions and begin executing attacks. Additionally, Adl recently criticized AQ’s strategic direction and identified some shortcomings. Will there be dissension or unity moving forward?
- US CT efforts spread thin– Recent uprisings and the fall of U.S. counterterrorism partner regimes has temporarily blinded CT efforts. Partner CT relationships maintained accountability of AQ movements throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Weak state emergence throughout these regions provides AQ a permissive environment.
- Pakistan conundrum- The Pakistani ISI versus CIA battle suggests to me that the U.S. may finally be on the doorstep of UBL. Destroying the Haqqani Network remains the decisive point for eliminating AQSL. Threats have been made on both sides. Can the U.S. finally go for the deep attack on UBL? Is UBL preparing for his death?
I could probably write more but I will stop here for now.
Bottom line: AQ must do something soon to remain relevant. The U.S. should begin anticipating what AQ will do. Don’t let recent uprisings become a distraction. Instead, recognize them as a potential opportunity against AQ in both the near and long term. All we have to do now is think through what AQ is most likely to do, and then adapt.