Recent comments by Administration officials, including Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counter-Terrorism, John Brennan, have suggested that Al Qaida is on the ropes and the end is in sight for the war on terror. The picture painted is one of an organization whose top leadership has been decimated, its finances disrupted and its ability to recruit seriously impaired. The argument is that we are almost there. The end is in sight. A few more strikes and the world will be safe from the threat of terrorism.
It's what we would all like. Peace. Security. Stability.
It's also a lie.
In 1998 Al Qaida attacked two US Embassies in East Africa. American casualties were substantial. Casualties amongst the Africans crowded outside in visa lines were horrific. Any question about Al Qaida's lethality and seriousness were answered conclusively.
In response, the Clinton Administration ordered the firing of dozens of cruise missiles at "training camps" in Afghanistan that were really largely barren hillsides and attacked what it described as a chemical weapons factory in Sudan. That "factory" may or may not have had anything to do with the making of chemical weapons. It certainly had no connection of any kind to the Embassy bombings.
Having launched these totally ineffectual reprisals, the Clinton Administration then closed the books on this episode and moved on. No matter what anyone says today we did not pursue Al Qaida with any real purpose in the aftermath of these attacks nor did we change tactics in any significant way. It would take 9/11, three years later, to force our government to recognize what everyone on the frontlines already knew, that we were at war.
Why? Because the Clinton Administration had other priorities. Because it was fixated on reaping the benefits of the "peace dividend", on keeping defense spending low and maintaining a focus on domestic issues. It was inconvenient to have to deal with the growing threat of Islamic terror, and so, quite simply, the White House decided to pretend that the threat did not exist.
We are in danger of tumbling back into the same state of delusion. That Al Qaida Central as a rigidly hierarchical organization based in the Pak-Afghan region is on the ropes is self-evident and has been for some time. Afghanistan has been denied to Al Qaida as a safe haven for a decade. Within Pakistan the group is under relentless pressure, and its senior leadership decimated by drone strikes and arrests.
That does not equate, however, to anything like an end to the war on terror. Al Qaida itself has already morphed and spread. Its affiliate in Yemen, Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, is now the most lethal arm of the organization. New allies, like Al Shabaab in Somalia, have allied themselves with the organization and brought dangerous new capabilities, like piracy, to the fray.
Around the world, other Islamic organizations, some allied with Al-Qaida and some not, have appeared, which threaten not only the United States but other nations as well.
- Laskkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani group formed around the cause of freeing Kashmir from Indian occupation, is the group responsible for the Mumbai massacres, which were largely directed against American and European targets.
- Boko Haram, a Nigerian terrorist group whose name translates roughly to "modern education is a sin", is conducting an increasingly violent and effective war against police and military targets in that critical oil producing nation.
- Hizbullah, Iran's terrorist proxy, stands on the verge of controlling the nation of Lebanon.
- In Central Asia, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other groups such as the Islamic Movement of Turkestan threaten to spread the Afghan contagion into an area that stretches from the Caspian Sea to China.
- Bangladesh, teetering on the edge of becoming another failed state, is perilously close to becoming yet another terrorist safe haven and is home to groups such as the 15,000 member strong. Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami.
In short, the war is far from over. We may be bringing the era of large scale deployments of conventional troops to an end, but we will be fighting this enemy with special forces and intelligence officers for years if not decades to come. We may desperately wish it were different, but that's reality, and it's time we faced it.