U.S. officials have reported that a drone strike in Pakistan killed al Qaeda senior leader Atiyah Abd al Rahman. The successful targeting of senior terrorist leaders has become a signature tool in the long war. Yet, as we have seen repeatedly since 2001, the decapitation of leadership in and of itself has not resulted in the dismantling and defeat of terrorist networks. Al Qaeda’s deadly presence in Iraq did not end when American forces targeted and killed al Qaeda in Iraq’s leader, Abu Musab al Zarqawi. A successful campaign targeting al Qaeda leaders in Yemen after 9/11 did not extinguish al Qaeda’s ability to regenerate in that state.
As the historical record suggests, the recent deaths of senior al Qaeda leaders should be seen in a broader context. Ten years have passed since al Qaeda attacked and killed thousands of American citizens. Our efforts to defeat al Qaeda and the nature of al Qaeda as an organization have evolved over the years, but there remains one constant: that we remain at war against an enemy network posing a threat to our homeland, our allies and our way of life.
There have been successes in the long war, including the initial rout of the Taliban and al Qaeda from Afghanistan and the crippling of al Qaeda in Iraq following the surge. A panoply of militant groups and leaders that prior to 9/11 did not exist, were unorganized or were unknown to many outside a small community of counterterrorism professionals have formed a hydra-headed network that is bent on carrying the mantle of al Qaeda’s global Islamist ideology. In Afghanistan, from which al Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks, American and coalition partners have largely denied al Qaeda the safe haven it once possessed.
This status quo, however, is not guaranteed. There are groups operating in Afghanistan that are aligned and intertwined with al Qaeda and are continuously trying to reestablish their bases. The Haqqani Network, operating from protected safe havens in Pakistan, is one such group. The group has longstanding ties to al Qaeda and has ambitions beyond establishing dominance in its historical stronghold in eastern Afghanistan.
Within Pakistan, where al Qaeda’s core leadership remains, a syndicate of terrorist organizations that threaten local, regional and global security continues to operate. Lashkar-e Taiba has morphed from a group focused solely on India to one that increasingly has its sights on a global war against the West; the 2008 Mumbai attacks targeted Western tourist destinations and a Jewish community site and nearly led to a broader India-Pakistan conflict. The Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), formed to unite various militant groups in Pakistan, launched a war against the nuclear-armed Pakistani state before expanding its scope to target the American homeland and American personnel based in the region. It trained and deployed the terrorist who targeted Times Square in 2010 and it worked with the al Qaeda operative who attacked a CIA base in Afghanistan, killing seven American intelligence officers.
The al Qaeda network also poses a significant threat outside of South Asia. In Yemen, the remnants of al Qaeda, which were assumed to have been dismantled following 9/11, have regenerated to form al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP is the most active node of the network and has launched multiple attacks against the American homeland in recent years. In the wake of the Arab Spring, it now operates in a state that is fragmenting and where its militant allies have acquired territory and usurped government control. Across the Gulf of Aden, an al Qaeda-linked group, which has been developing operational ties with AQAP, controls large portions of Somalia and has threatened the local government’s control over the capital while exacerbating what is the worst humanitarian crisis to hit the Horn of Africa in decades.
The militant Islamist threat to the West is not limited to the activities of al Qaeda. The current Iranian regime, which has been at war with America since its inception, remains a fundamental threat. In the last 10 years, it has accelerated a nuclear program that has drawn it closer to possessing a bomb; developed and directed proxy forces that threaten its immediate neighbors and Israel; facilitated the killings of Americans in multiple theaters of war; and aided and abetted al Qaeda in the region.
This regional environment today is underappreciated. Acknowledging these challenges and the risks they pose should, in fact, be prerequisites for any serious policy debate. Only through an understanding of the threats present can we begin to ask the key questions that should be guiding policy decisions going forward. Debates over the national debt, the prosecution of the current wars and America’s commitments to its allies, for example, are among the issues that require such an accounting.
Discussions surrounding the nation’s deficit and how best to overcome it too often treat defense and national security-related resources simply as quantitative factors and line items to be haggled over and compromised. Lost in this discussion are the more substantive questions. How will potentially deep cuts to the defense budget impinge upon America’s ability to simultaneously respond to exigent crises in states like Pakistan or Yemen while maintaining other global commitments and responsibilities? Can we expect “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism tools to defeat al Qaeda networks when there has never been such a historical precedent? Similar and more immediate questions must be asked regarding Afghanistan and Iraq. What risks are we absorbing if a premature withdrawal from Afghanistan, driven by political reasons unrelated to the actual war, leads to the re-empowerment of Islamist militants in South Asia and the emboldening of al Qaeda globally? How will we confront an increasingly hard-line Iranian regime on a path toward nuclear weapons if we fail to secure a lasting, credible strategic partnership with Iraq?
Beyond Islamist militancy, the coming of the Arab Spring has reinforced the necessity of thinking through contingency plans and being resourced adequately to respond to international crises and developments that America could not ignore without absorbing significant risks or missing opportunities.
Ten years later, having witnessed the courage and sacrifices of countless brave men and women defending and advancing America’s interests, it is imperative that we ground our way forward in the reality of the evolving and still dangerous environment we face.
Maseh Zarif is research manager for the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project. The project monitors and analyzes key and emerging threats to U.S. national security, including Iran and the al Qaeda network.