Al Qaeda Weakened But Still Dangerous 10 Years after 9/11

Ten years since the massive September 11 terror attacks, the United States government acknowledges that Al Qaeda remains a threat despite being weakened on multiple fronts. Proof of that danger came this week when US officials spoke of an unconfirmed but credible threat targeting US cities. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, according to a speech transcript distributed by the US State Department, noted on Friday the “news last night of a specific, credible, but unconfirmed, report that Al Qaeda again is seeking to harm Americans and, in particular, to target New York and Washington.”

Despite that warning, the Al Qaeda terror group has suffered one blow after another in the last 10 years. That includes the killing of leader Osama bin Laden by US troops earlier this year. In comments by email to The Mideast Update, a State Department official noted the damage done to the Al Qaeda organization.

“The Al Qaeda (AQ) core has had significant leadership losses and is finding it more difficult to raise money, train recruits, and plan attacks outside of the region,” said the official. “But although AQ core is clearly weaker, it retains the capability to conduct regional and transnational attacks.”

That sentiment was shared by Yoram Schweitzer, a terrorism expert at The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), an Israeli think tank. He said that “quite a large portion” of Al Qaeda central’s operational leaders, military commanders and senior leaders in their hierarchy have been killed in recent years. But they’re still dangerous.

“Al Qaeda central has definitely suffered some major blows in recent years… which means that this organization is in a sense limited, and to some extent crippled, but not totally destroyed,” said Schweitzer, the INSS director of the Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict. “So I think Al Qaeda is still capable.”

Furthermore, the Al Qaeda threat is no longer confined to bin Laden’s Afghanistan and Pakistan-based group. The global terrorism network has affiliates in a variety of locations.

One of their more famous terror affiliates is Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). According to the State Department official, AQAP was behind the 2009 Christmas Day bomber, who tried to set off explosives sown into his clothing on a plane headed to Detroit. The bomb failed and he was apprehended. AQAP was also behind the unsuccessful plot to blow up US-bound airplanes by mailing bombs intended to explode while onboard.

The US official said that AQAP “continues to demonstrate its growing ambitions and strong desire to carry out attacks outside of its region.  AQAP has established itself as the first of the AQ affiliates to make attacks against the United States at home a central goal.”

Beyond targeting the US, the Al Qaeda threat is also in other areas around the world—including in the Middle East and Africa. Schweitzer said of Al Qaeda affiliates, “All of them are operating independently, with strong affiliation to Al Qaeda and definitely by adopting Al Qaeda doctrine and sometimes even the modus operandi. So these capabilities are still there. Which means they are looking for spectacular attacks, mostly suicide attacks or other kinds of spectacular attacks, and they are still capable of doing so.”

The US official noted that “while the AQ core has weakened operationally, the affiliates have become stronger. Consequently, the broader AQ threat has become more geographically and ethnically diversified.”

Beyond Al Qaeda

Al Qaeda is certainly not the only Middle East jihadist threat. Perhaps the most extensive and capable terror network in the region is the paramilitary Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon. Hezbollah is acknowledged to have thousands of missiles and Schweitzer said they are capable of reaching beyond Lebanon’s borders—including involvement in Iraq and trying to target Israeli targets.

Said Schweitzer Hezbollah is now a “militarized terrorilla group” with “a large army with high capabilities, because it is supported by at least two states [Iran and Syria] who opened almost entirely their resources and arsenal for Hezbollah.”

Hezbollah even has a presence in the South American nation of Venezuela. However, the State Department official emphasized that “the information available to us indicates that Hezbollah activity in Venezuela is confined to fundraising. We remain alert to indications of other activities, particularly operational activity, but there is no information to support any such connection at this time.”

Schweitzer further noted he did not think Hezbollah would target the West unless something changes. He said they are constrained in operations abroad due to their patron Iran’s “reluctance to be perceived as supporting, openly, international terrorism,” as well as their own interest in legitimacy as the “most powerful party” in Lebanon.  Getting revenge on Israel abroad could supersede their international restraint, however.

Outside the traditional threats, more localized groups remain a very real concern. Israel suffered its worst terror attack in years at the hands of a wannabe Palestinian Al Qaeda group. Schweitzer believes the group was behind the attack north of Eilat last month that killed multiple Israelis and wounded dozens.

He also noted that the global Al Qaeda has not yet approved granting the Al Qaeda brand name to the Palestinian movement. However, with the increased lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula since the end of the Hosni Mubarak-regime in Egypt, the Gaza Al Qaeda may have more opportunity to operate in the Sinai, as well as Gaza. In light of that, Schweitzer felt the main Al Qaeda could be more motivated to support them, especially with verbal support and encouragement.

Global Counterterrorism Succeeding

Despite the ongoing threats, the US and Israel have both managed to make headway in the fight against terrorism. The US official said that one of the “unsung success stories of our time” is the global teamwork that has “sharply reduced the capacities of terrorist groups through our collaborative efforts.”

And those efforts have had a very real impact. Said the official, “In the critical areas of intelligence and law enforcement, governments have joined together time and again and prevented real attacks.”

To that end, the US seeks to build new partnerships in counterterrorism, and currently has formal bilateral counterterrorism consultations with a number of nations. Those include Israel, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Russia and China.

The US has also implemented counterterrorism efforts that run beyond traditional intelligence, police and military approaches. These include capacity-building efforts that seek to improve the rule of law and governance in weak states, as well as efforts to counter violent extremism through programs such as providing alternatives for at-risk youth.

In Israel, counterterrorism has also had its successes. While the brutal Second intifada terror war had begun well before 9/11, the terror era marked by suicide bombings and other terror was tragically similar to the attacks in the US, Spain and London.

And just as the West has managed to time and again foil attacks, the Israelis also made dramatic headway in their fight with terror. The Israelis have engaged in extensive counterterrorism efforts and began building the security fence, and suicide bombings outside of the Gaza region have plunged to almost zero in recent years.

While not going into specifics regarding Israel’s efforts, Schweitzer noted that they have in fact adapted to the suicide attacks and “were successful in counter-challenging it.” That doesn’t mean they can rest. Last month a suicide bombing was thwarted in Jerusalem just one day before the planned attack.

Terrorists have further focused on rocket terror, for which the Israelis developed the Iron Dome missile-defense system, which limits the damage and risk from the attacks. And Israel has already learned other lessons in challenging terrorism, including plane hijackings.

“I think constantly we are learning and we are adapting to the new, technical improvements of our enemies. And it never ends, but I think Israel basically is a quick learner,” said Schweitzer. “And when we encounter new challenges, it takes time and then we found solutions. Of course, there are more and more challenges.”

Cyber-terror Next?

Looking ahead, Schweitzer said the most ominous threat is that of non-conventional terrorism—a danger not limited to nuclear weapons. He pointed specifically at cyber-terrorism as an up-and-coming threat.

“Cyber-terrorism is almost around the corner,” said Schweitzer. “One can see that in not too long a time, terrorists may control some means of non-conventional warfare by using cyberspace, and that may create a problem. We have heard that in many countries there is a preparedness for this, but they always have the edge of surprising us.”

In light of the ever-dangerous innovation of violent extremists that can come up with new and unexpected means of terror, the State Department official highlighted the need to upkeep the counterterrorism approach.

“In the race to protect the United States and to stay ‘one step ahead’ of violent extremists, we too must stay sharp, improve our offense, maintain our intellectual edge, and continually adapt to changing conditions on the ground.”

Yet while that’s a fight that may never end, the official noted that most people around the world have so far achieved the most significant victory following the September 11 attacks: They picked up their lives and kept going forward.

“Worldwide, terrorists have failed to achieve their goals. Individuals, communities, and nations have shown that they are stronger than fear,” said the US official.

“Far from being paralyzed by the violent actions of a few, the vast majority of people around the world are focused daily on pursuing ambitions for themselves and for their children: achieving greater levels of education; creating new economic opportunities; and improving the systems that govern them.”

(By Joshua Spurlock,, September 9, 2011)