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Ten Years on - The Evolution of the Terrorist Threat Since 9/11

Testimony Presented Before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats
June 22, 2011 |

Chairman Thornberry, Ranking Member Langevin and other members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

My testimony will attempt to answer three questions:

What does today’s threat look like? How has the threat changed? And, what do we do about it?

1. Today’s threat

The death of Osama bin Laden is devastating to “core” al-Qaeda, but arguably just as important to undermining the terrorist organization is the large amount of information that was recovered at the compound where he was killed in northern Pakistan on May 2, 2011. That information is already being exploited for leads. Between the “Arab Spring” and the death of bin Laden, both al-Qaeda’s ideology and organization are under assault. That said, jihadist terrorism isn't going away. Regional affiliates such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remain threatening and there is a continued low-level threat posed by “homegrown” jihadist militants inspired by bin Laden’s ideas.

Such militants might successfully carry out bombings against symbolic targets that would kill dozens, such as subways in Manhattan, as was the plan in September 2009 of Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan-American al-Qaeda recruit, or they might blow up an American passenger jet, as was the intention three months later of the Nigerian Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab, who had been recruited by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Had that bombing attempt succeeded, it would have killed hundreds. This level of threat is likely to persist for years to come. However, al-Qaeda no longer poses a national security threat to the American homeland of the type that could result in a mass-casualty attack anywhere close to the scale of 9/11.

Indeed, a survey of the 183 individuals indicted or convicted in Islamist terrorism cases in the United States since the 9/11 attacks by the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and the New America Foundation found that none of the cases involved the use of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons, while only four of the homegrown plots since 9/11 progressed to an actual attack in the United States, attacks that resulted in a total of seventeen deaths. The most notable was the 2009 shootings at Ft. Hood, Texas by Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed thirteen. By way of comparison, according to the FBI, between 2001 and 2009, 73 people were killed in hate crimes in the United States.

The number of jihadist terrorism cases involving U.S. citizens or residents has markedly spiked in the past two years. In 2009 and 2010 there were 76, almost half of the total since 9/11, but in the first half of 2011 the number of such cases has subsided rather dramatically. This year there have been a total of just eight jihadist terrorism cases by the date of this hearing.

American officials and the wider public should realize that by the law of averages al-Qaeda or an affiliate will succeed in getting some kind of attack through in the next years, and the best response to that would be to demonstrate that we as a society are resilient and are not be intimidated by such actions because our overreactions can play into the hands of the jihadist groups. When al-Qaeda or affiliated groups can provoke overwrought media coverage based on attacks that don’t even succeed -- such as the near- miss on Christmas Day 2009 when Abdulmutallab tried to blow up Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit -- we are doing their work for them. The person who best understood the benefits of American overreaction was bin Laden himself, who in 2004 said on a tape that aired on Al Jazeera: “All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses.”[1] Let us not give bin Laden any more such victories now that he is dead.

This testimony focuses on the threat from al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and those motivated by its ideas, while recognizing that these are not the only sources of terrorism directed against the United States.

What effect will the killing of Osama bin Laden have on U.S. security interests, and on core al-Qaeda’s goals and capabilities? Bin Laden exercised near-total control over al-Qaeda, whose members had to swear a religious oath personally to bin Laden, so ensuring blind loyalty to him. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational commander of the 9/11 attacks, outlined the dictatorial powers that bin Laden exercised over his organization: "If the Shura council at al-Qaeda, the highest authority in the organization, had a majority of 98 percent on a resolution and it is opposed by bin Laden, he has the right to cancel the resolution."[2]Bin Laden’s son Omar recalls that the men who worked for al-Qaeda had a habit of requesting permission before they spoke with their leader, saying, “Dear prince: May I speak?”[3]

Materials recovered from the Abbottabad compound in northern Pakistan where bin Laden was killed paint a picture of a leader deeply involved in tactical, operational and strategic planning for al-Qaeda, and in communication with other leaders of the group and even the organization’s affiliates overseas.[4]

The death of bin Laden eliminates the founder of al-Qaeda, which has only enjoyed one leader since its founding in 1988, and it also eliminates the one man who provided broad, largely unquestioned strategic goals to the wider jihadist movement. Around the world, those who joined al-Qaeda in the past two decades have sworn baya, a religious oath of allegiance to bin Laden, rather than to the organization itself, in the same way that Nazi party members swore an oath of fealty to Hitler, rather than to Nazism. That baya must now be transferred to Ayman al Zawahiri, the just announced new leader of al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda the organization and the brand are in deep trouble, and Zawahiri is quite unlikely to become the leader who can turn things around. Al-Qaeda is peddling an ideology that has lost much of its purchase in the Muslim world, and it hasn’t mounted a successful terrorist attack in the West since the July 7, 2005 bombings in London. The terrorist network’s plots, for instance, to blow up seven American, British and Canadian planes over the Atlantic in 2006, to set off bombs in Manhattan in 2009, and to mount Mumbai-style attacks in Europe a year later all came to nothing. Most notably, it hasn’t carried out a successful attack in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001. This significant record of failure predates the momentous events of the Arab Spring— events in which al-Qaeda’s leaders, foot soldiers and ideas played no role.

When bin Laden’s followers have described their feelings for him, it has been with love. Abu Jandal, a Yemeni who became one of his bodyguards, described his first meeting with bin Laden in 1997 as “beautiful” and said he came to look on him “as a father.” Shadi Abdalla, a Jordanian who was also one of bin Laden’s bodyguards, explained his boss’s attraction: “A very charismatic person who could persuade people simply by his way of talking. One could say that he ‘seduced’ many young men.”

There is no evidence to suggest that Zawahiri inspires similar feelings. More often he comes off as a classic middle manager, such as when he complained in a pre-9/11 memo, later discovered in Afghanistan, that al-Qaeda members in Yemen had spent too much money on a fax machine. Zawahiri’s persona makes a real difference to the future of al-Qaeda, whose members have sworn a personal religious oath of obedience to bin Laden.

It’s far from clear how many of them will automatically transfer that oath to Zawahiri. 

Meanwhile, U.S. drone strikes have decimated the bench of al-Qaeda’s commanders since the summer of 2008, when President George W. Bush authorized a ramped-up program of attacks in Pakistan’s tribal regions. And in the two most populous Muslim nations — Indonesia and Pakistan — favorable views of bin Laden and support for suicide bombings dropped by at least half between 2003 and 2010.

The key force behind this decline has been the deaths of Muslim civilians at the hands of jihadist terrorists. The trail of dead civilians from Baghdad to Jakarta and from Amman to Islamabad over the past decade has largely been the work of al-Qaeda and its allies. Though jihadist groups position themselves as the defenders of the Islamic faith, it has become clear that their actions are quite damaging to Muslims themselves.

Despite all of Zawahiri’s drawbacks and the serious institutional problems he inherits, there are some opportunities for him to help resuscitate al-Qaeda. As the Arab Spring turns into a long, hot and violent summer, Zawahiri will try to exploit the regional chaos to achieve his central goal: establishing a new haven for al-Qaeda.

The one place he might be able to pull this off is Yemen. Many of al-Qaeda’s members, like bin Laden himself, have roots in Yemen, and U.S. counterterrorism officials have identified the al-Qaeda affiliate there as the most dangerous of the group’s regional branches. And the civil war now engulfing the country has already provided an opportunity for jihadist militants to seize the southern town of Zinjibar. Surely al-Qaeda will want to build on this feat in a country that is the nearest analogue today to pre-9/11 Afghanistan: a largely tribal, heavily armed, dirt-poor nation scarred by years of war.[5]

Jihadist terrorism will not, of course, disappear because of the death of bin Laden. Indeed, the Pakistan Taliban have already mounted attacks in Pakistan that they said were revenge for bin Laden’s death,[6]but it is hard to imagine two more final endings to the “War on Terror” than the popular revolts against the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and the death of bin Laden. No protestors in the streets of Cairo or Benghazi carried placards of bin Laden’s face, and very few demanded the imposition of Taliban-like rule, al-Qaeda’s preferred end state for the countries in the region. If the Arab Spring was a large nail in the coffin of al-Qaeda’s ideology, the death of bin Laden was an equally large nail in the coffin of al-Qaeda the organization.

Media stories asserting that al-Qaeda has played no role in the revolts in the Middle East provoked a furious response from the Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In his group’s Inspire magazine, a slick Web-based publication, heavy on photographs and graphics that, unusually for a jihadist organ, is written in colloquial English, Awlaki penned an essay titled "The Tsunami of Change." In the article, Awlaki made the uncontroversial point that the regimes based on fear were ending in the Arab world because of the revolutions and protests from Egypt to Bahrain. But he went on to assert that, contrary to commentators who had written that the Arab revolts represented a total repudiation of al-Qaeda's founding ideology, the world should "know very well that the opposite is the case."[7]

Awlaki also turned to this analyst, writing, "for a so-called 'terrorism expert' such as Peter Bergen, it is interesting to see how even he doesn't get it right this time. For him to think that because a Taliban-style regime is not going to take over following the revolutions, is a too short-term way of viewing the unfolding events." In other words: Just you wait — Taliban-type theocracies will be coming to the Middle East as the revolutions there unfold further. Awlaki also wrote that it was wrong to say that al-Qaeda viewed the revolutions in the Middle East with "despair." Instead, he claimed that "the Mujahedeen (holy warriors) around the world are going through a moment of elation and I wonder whether the West is aware of the upsurge in Mujahedeen activity in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Arabia, Algeria and Morocco?”

We do not, of course, know the final outcome of the Arab revolutions, but there is very little chance that al-Qaeda or other extremist groups will be able to grab the reins of power as the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East crumble. But while al-Qaeda and its allies cannot take power anywhere in the Muslim world, these groups do thrive on chaos and civil war. And the whole point of revolutions is that they are inherently unpredictable even to the people who are leading them, so anything could happen in the coming years in Libya and Yemen, and much is unpredictable in Egypt, and even in Saudi Arabia.

[1]Osama bin Laden, tape released November 1, 2004, http://articles.cnn.com/2004-11- 01/world/binladen.tape_1_al-jazeera-qaeda-bin?_s=PM:WORLD.

[2]Substitution for the testimony of KSM, trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Substitution_for_the_Testimony_of_KSM.

[3]Jean Sasson and Omar and Najwa bin Laden, Growing Up Bin Laden (St. Martin’s Press: New York, NY, 2009), p. 161 and 213.

[4]Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane, “Data show bin Laden plots,” New YorkTimes, May 5, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/06/world/asia/06intel.html.

[5]Derived from Peter Bergen, “Where will Zawahiri take al-Qaeda?” WashingtonPost, June 17, 2011. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/zawahiri-al-qaedas-new-leader-probably-cant-save-the-struggling-group/2011/06/16/AGZKeMZH_story.html

[6]“Taliban's 'First Revenge' for Bin Laden Killing Leaves 80 Dead in Pakistan” Associated Press, May 13, 2011. http://www.foxnews.com/world/2011/05/13/police-68-killed-bombings-nw-pak...

[7]Anwar al-Awlaki, “Tsunami of change,” Inspire, March 2011, http://info.publicintelligence.net/InspireMarch2011.pdf.

The death of Osama bin Laden is devastating to “core” al-Qaeda, but arguably just as important to undermining the terrorist organization is the large amount of information that was recovered at the compound where he was killed in northern Pakistan on May 2, 2011.

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