A recent assessment by senior U.S. intelligence officials shows that while the current threat associated to al-Qaeda central—i.e., Ayman al-Zawahiri and his immediate acolytes—has significantly diminished, the threat nonetheless remains.
Richard Cardillo, an official with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, argues that a high-impact terrorist event emanating from al-Qaeda central is “unlikely in the next year.”
While it is true that al-Qaeda central and its radical ideologies, as represented by Osama bin Laden and manifest in the tragic events of September 11, has been fractured, in many ways this phenomenon has led to the diffusion of such ideologies.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other regional proponents of Islamism have been the natural outgrowth resulting from the constant pressure levied on al-Qaeda central and the regions in which it previously operated with relative impunity.
While U.S. counterterrorism efforts have no doubt hampered the ability of al-Qaeda central or its regional affiliates from launching a sophisticated attack against the U.S., it is important for both the U.S. counterterrorism community as well as the public at large to resist the temptation to rest on their laurels.
Heritage’s own James Carafano opines, “What happens if [counterterrorism] pressure goes off in Afghanistan and Taliban come back? There is a bit of rosy scenario going on here, I think—not inaccurate, just incomplete.”
One area where there remains a distinct threat is with the lone-wolf terrorist. The ongoing trial of Oslo spree killer Anders Breivik, who murdered over 70 people in a protracted shooting spree last year, reminds the world of the devastation that one deranged individual can perpetrate upon society.
The more recent example of Islamist Mohammad Merah, who spent a week terrorizing the French suburb of Toulouse before being killed by police, illustrates that while al-Qaeda central may be fractured and its leadership on the run, the Islamist narrative still resonates among a disparate and often unidentified population.
Vigilance remains the greatest hedge against terrorism. There are no permanent victories in the battle against radical ideologies and violent extremism. While we should no doubt appreciate the positive outcomes associated to our nation’s concerted counterterrorism efforts, we should not allow ourselves to be lulled into complacency.