Ten years to the day after American forces entered Afghanistan to hunt Al Qaeda, the United States faces a severely weakened but resilient foe. Osama Bin Laden is dead. The cleric who inspired many jihadists from his perch in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, is too.
Some want to declare the fight against Al Qaeda over and done. We won, they say. Move on.
Wrong. The ugly reality is that Al Qaeda will be a lingering menace for years to come. The organization has been largely broken - but the ideology will continue to motivate people to kill.
Pundits talk about defeating Al Qaeda's radical jihadist ideology the same way communism was destroyed. But the truth is that communism was not eliminated. Rather, the organizations that embodied the threat it posed were destroyed or evolved: The Soviet Union collapsed and China is now more interested in capital flows than it is in Karl Marx. Al Qaeda must only inspire a few radicals to pose a threat.
So long as Al Qaeda persists, the fight against it must go on. The real question is how should the United States respond to a weaker Al Qaeda that is actively trying to bleed the United States economically in an era of constrained resources.
First, we need a more serious conversation about counterterrorism rather than the talking-point blather of cable news shows.
Second, we need to acknowledge that our tactics often cut both ways. Drone strikes have been tremendously effective in killing terrorist leaders and destroying their infrastructure, but they help Al Qaeda make its core argument that the West is at war with Islam, which feeds homegrown extremism. Faisal Shahzad referenced drones in Pakistan as a reason he tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square.
Killing Al Qaeda members must continue to be part of our strategy, but it cannot be our only tactic. There are times when we would be better served working with tribal groups and governments to attack the enemy rather than doing the dirty work ourselves.
Third, we need to become more resilient domestically. The threat of a major, 9/11 style attack has declined over the past decade. Meanwhile, the danger from smaller, lone-wolf attacks has increased. Such an attack would be terrible, but in the wake of such a strike, America would go on. Since 9/11, only 17 Americans have been killed by Al Qaeda related violence inside the United States. That compares to 72 people killed in hate crimes.
Al Qaeda is likely to land a few more blows against the United States, but we are strong enough to take a punch. We cannot play to Al Qaeda's strategy of economic attrition and allow fear to drive an inefficient reaction to its provocation. The threat of a WMD attack is real, but extremely unlikely. Moreover, in all but the most unlikely of circumstances - a full blown nuclear attack - we could recover quickly. The most likely WMD attack, small chemical weapons attacks, are more frightening than deadly.
Fourth, we need a comprehensive plan to undermine Al Qaeda's ability to recruit new members. Often, that means letting it shoot itself in the foot - its ideas and violence are extremely noxious to most people, including Muslims. We must emphasize three themes: Al Qaeda kills Muslims (85% of their victims between 2004 and 2008), violence is an ineffective and unacceptable way to pursue social change (look at the success of the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia) and Muslims in the United States are respected as citizens.
Al Qaeda is down but not out. It is time for U.S. counterterrorism policy to mature.