Bergen is wrong. We shouldn’t claim victory. To begin with, I’m not so sure that Bergen isn’t exaggerating al-Qaeda’s “myriad weaknesses.” Sure, the group’s nose is bloodied, to put it charitably; as I mentioned a couple of posts ago, al-Qaeda Central (AQC) in Pakistan has been devastated. Indeed, now that Abu Yahya al-Libi has met the same demise as so many of his colleagues before him, only Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s ever-irascible and uncharismatic former sidekick, remains. If that were the end of the story, Bergen might have a point. But it’s not. Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is as strong as ever and has effectively taken over AQC’s mantle. In fact, the group has tripled in size in just three years, growing from about 200-300 members at the end of 2009 to more than 1,000 today. AQAP is the organization that has targeted the American mainland on three separate occasions now – first in 2009 with the would-be Underwear Bomber aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253, then in 2010 with the foiled cargo planes bomb plot, and most recently in May of this year when another underwear bomber, with an upgraded version of the failed 2009 bomb, sought to blow himself up onboard yet another American passenger jet. Thankfully, this recent aspiring martyr turned out to be a double agent working with Western intelligence agencies.
Bergen sees this but-what-about-AQAP counterargument coming and offers a preemptive riposte:
Certainly, since 2009 the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has attempted to bring down American airliners and cargo planes flying to the United States with hard-to-detect bombs, but those plots all failed, and once the talented bomb-maker behind them is captured or killed the threat to the United States from AQAP will likely recede.
Yes, these plots failed, but only barely. With the exception of the most recent underwear bomb plot, which was expertly thwarted, the previous two attempts were near misses. Had the first underwear bomb been free of kinks and more powerful, 289 lives would have been lost. Al-Qaeda could just as well have written the Irish Republican Army’s statement following its 1984 assassination attempt on Margaret Thatcher, which remains all too true today: “You have to be lucky all the time. We only have to be lucky once.”
That’s not to say that our nation’s defenses haven’t improved. As Bergen points out (with varying degrees of persuasion):
• On 9/11, there were 16 people on the "no fly" list. Now there are more than 20,000.
• In 2001, there were just a handful of Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF), "fusion centers" where multiple law enforcement agencies work together to chase down leads to build terrorism cases. Now there are more than one hundred JTTFs across the country.
• A decade ago, the National Counterterrorism Center, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) didn't exist. All of these new institutions make it much harder for terrorists to operate in the United States.
• Before 9/11, Special Operations Forces were rarely deployed against al Qaeda and allied groups. Now they perform some dozen operations every day in Afghanistan, as well as many other missions in countries such as Yemen and Somalia.
• At the beginning of the 21st century, the American public didn't comprehend the threat posed by jihadist terrorists. That changed dramatically after the attacks on New York and Washington. In December 2001, it was passengers on his plane who disabled the "shoe bomber," Richard Reid. Similarly, eight years later it was his fellow passengers who tackled Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the "underwear bomber." And the following year it was a street vendor who spotted a suspicious SUV parked in Times Square that contained a bomb.
• Before 9/11 the CIA and the FBI barely communicated about their respective investigations of terrorist groups. Now they work together quite closely.
Even if one was to buy Bergen’s premises (i.e., that the US is more fortified than ever against terrorist attacks and al-Qaeda is weaker than ever), it would still be doltish to claim victory. First of all, it’s politically unfeasible. To borrow Bergen’s analogy, it’s true that we didn’t need to kill every single Nazi before declaring victory against Germany, because Germany surrendered, and with that surrender came the peace of mind that Nazis would drop their weapons and cease their attacks against Allied forces. The same cannot be said of al-Qaeda; our President’s declaration of victory would not cause al-Qaeda to lay down their arms. On the contrary, it may spur the group to muster an attack to prove its relevance. Setting aside the awfulness surrounding the killing of innocents, such an attack would be politically disastrous for the President and his party. It would be “Mission Accomplished” all over again.
Second of all, what’s the point? What would change? Would there be an accompanying change in policy? No, very likely we would continue to carry out drone strikes against al-Qaeda wherever their poor souls may reside. So then the victory declaration just becomes a matter of rhetoric, a tool for shaping the nation’s agenda. But we don’t need a formal declaration of victory from the Commander in Chief to allocate resources toward other worthy endeavors. Did Obama have to declare victory against al-Qaeda to pass healthcare reform? I don’t think so. The office of the presidency is endowed with immense agenda-setting powers. Keep security beefed up at home and continue efforts to disrupt and dismantle al-Qaeda abroad, while pursuing other “essential challenges.” In other words, let’s just keep doing what we’re doing.By Nathan Patin, Aslan Media Columnist