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By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Last Monday marked the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States and the beginning of America’s War on Terror. In what has become a standard routine, pundits publish articles – both retrospective and introspective – regarding the events of that awful day and the continuing war against radical terrorist groups.
What is becoming increasingly consistent, however, are the continuing failures to quash terrorism. Combating something like terrorism is not a task that has a definite end.
Groups that engage in terrorism do not last forever, although the tactic has sustained itself for over 3,000 years. Even if the eradication of al-Qaeda was the U.S. goal, the radical ideology of the group is not something that is restricted only to Osama bin Laden or any jihadist offshoot.
The Islamic State (IS) has demonstrated this devotion to ideology quite clearly. Although it is a former al-Qaeda subsidiary, the IS has developed its own distinct brand of militant Islam.
The Short, Violent Lives of Terrorists
Turning the clock back on modern terrorism ever so slightly, names such as the Abu Nidal organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Irish Republican Army and the Colombian revolutionary FARC are certainly familiar today. These groups still exist, even if they are mere shadows of their former selves.
The IRA and FARC have come to political accommodations with their former government foes, while other groups that were active in the 1970s and 1980s have collapsed completely. Those groups never did succeed in their struggle because the legitimate nation-states they fought retained their primacy.
In addition, the world powers shaped the globe in such a way that these terrorist movements slowly became irrelevant and ultimately were replaced by new movements with new grievances against the political establishment. The very forces that al-Qaeda tried to reorient and suppress are slowly outpacing the radical Islamists, even if the radical Islamists have not been defeated or eradicated.
Al-Qaeda is not a spent force, at least not yet. The movement and its franchises are still active throughout the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. But al-Qaeda is not functioning as a single entity; nor has it been carrying out terrorist attacks in the West with any regularity.
Syria’s civil war and the political chaos in Iraq and Yemen have given al-Qaeda the bandwidth to operate in a paramilitary fashion. Al-Qaeda has seized and now administers several small areas in both countries.
Numerous factors will have a profound impact on how al-Qaeda will operate during the next few years. The civil war in Syria is still playing out and the Islamic State is being routed from its strongholds.
Syrian President or Kurdish Forces Most Likely to Regain Control of Syria
Syrian President Bashir al-Assad’s loyalists are on the ascendency with Russian backing. Although it is still too early to tell how the politics of Syria will ultimately play out, Assad is the best-placed figure to regain control of sizable portions of Syria, with Kurdish forces a close second among the many groups jockeying for power there. Even if some areas of Syria manage to stabilize, al-Qaeda is likely to find a way to survive in that environment.
Son of Osama bin Laden Growing More Powerful in Middle East
Another development that may play a role in al-Qaeda’s near future is the reemergence of Hamza bin Laden, Osama bin Laden’s son.
Ali Soufan is the founder of the Soufan Group, which provides strategic security intelligence services to governments and multinational organizations. In September 2017, Soufan wrote an excellent article for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point on Hamza’s ability to reunite the disparate entities that once pledged loyalty to his father.
Hamza sounds very much like his father. His call to arms is reminiscent of the elder bin Laden’s approach to fighting the enemy (i.e., the U.S.). While Hamza’s call to arms might give al-Qaeda a shot in the arm and provide this terrorist organization another bin Laden to rally around, Hamza’s actions might be a bit shortsighted.
The world has changed since Osama bin Laden plotted 9/11 and the attacks on the U.S. embassies. Bin Laden railed against the U.S. presence in the Middle East. However, the interests that placed Washington in that region have changed significantly, making any future U.S. permanent presence in the region doubtful.
Without a Western presence in the Middle East, al-Qaeda’s mission to unite the community, the Ummah, remains the same. But battling a “far enemy” that no longer has an overriding interest in remaining in the region makes no sense. However, al-Qaeda would have an opportunity to target and manipulate the local powers that will be posturing to dominate the Middle East.
Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia are already locked in a battle of wills over regional influence. Although some Western nations might take sides, al-Qaeda will have to adjust its rallying cry if it wishes to recruit the larger Muslim population to its cause. If al-Qaeda cannot adjust to meet the emerging political reality of the Middle East, it will suffer the same fate of eventual obscurity like many of its terrorist ancestors.
The Continued Primacy of the Nation-State
Terrorism has a long history and it has always manifested itself as an extreme minority amid an established political arrangement. Terrorism is reactive. Once the political environment changes, it is difficult for terrorist groups that arise in response to that change to exist.
Nation-states are monoliths that represent large populations over larger still geographic areas. Ruling entities often have to shift with the whims of their population. In some cases, rulers must change with the advent of technology or the discovery of a new energy source.
Terrorist Groups Have Less Room to Maneuver Politically
Terrorism, on the other hand, is adaptable as a tactic. But the group that resorts to terrorism as a tactic has less room to maneuver politically.
If a terrorist group is to survive, it must adapt to current politics. That is why groups that have existed on nothing more than inertia have often been forced to go mainstream. In the midst of this change, the nation-state continues to pursue its interests unabated.
Nation-states are not immune to policy inertia, either. Perhaps this fact explains the continued presence of the U.S. military in Afghanistan 16 years after the 9/11 attacks and the accomplishment of partially disrupting al-Qaeda operations in that nation.
The U.S. simply does not have a national interest in Afghanistan. American interests have shifted in other areas as well. With America’s newfound energy independence, much of what drove U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is beginning to shift as well, even if it is not yet readily discernible.
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These shifts are not always seismic and can take years before they become truly visible. But this change will affect U.S. behavior in more ways than al-Qaeda ever could.
In essence, the U.S. is continuing with its development despite any setbacks that arise in the War on Terror. But, although it has survived, al-Qaeda is not what it once was and will continually be forced to adapt politically to machinations that are well beyond its control.
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