Geopolitical Diary: The Reality of Al Qaeda's Resurgence
By: Stratfor.comJuly 13, 2007
A leak from the U.S. defense community revealed a document titled "Al Qaeda better positioned to strike the West" on Thursday, touching off a firestorm of debate within the United States over the status of the war on terror. According to the leak, al Qaeda is "considerably operationally stronger than a year ago," has "regrouped to an extent not seen since 2001" and is "showing greater and greater ability to plan attacks in Europe and the United States."

Stratfor cannot analyze the contents of the report because we have not read it; so far, no one has felt it necessary to commit a felony by leaking this specific document to us. But the general thrust of the document, that al Qaeda has regenerated, is clear. Many of Stratfor's readers have noted that this position clashes with our recently clarified assessment that, while al Qaeda remains dangerous, the group's day in the sun is over.

The first and most important question to ask when looking at this leaked report, then, is which al Qaeda is being discussed. Evolution and misuse of terminology means there are now two.

The first is the al Qaeda that carried out the 9/11 attacks. This group deeply understands how intelligence agencies work, and therefore how to avoid them. After the 9/11 attacks, however, this group's security protocols forced it to go underground, pushing itself deeper into the cave each time it thought one of its assets or plans had been compromised. The result was a steady degradation of capabilities, with its attacks proving less and less significant. Stratfor now estimates that, while this al Qaeda -- which we often refer to as the apex leadership, or al Qaeda prime -- still exists and is still dangerous, it is no longer a strategic threat to the United States. Its members can carry out attacks, but not ones of the grandeur and horror of 9/11, or even of the Madrid bombings, that achieve the group's goal of forcing policy changes on Western governments.

The second al Qaeda is a result of the apex leadership's isolation. It represents a range of largely disconnected Islamist militants who either have been inspired by the real al Qaeda or who seek to use the name to bolster their credibility. While many of these groups are rather amateurish, others are deadly efficient. It is best to think of them as al Qaeda franchises. However, these franchises lack the security policy or vision of their predecessor, and they do not constitute a strategic threat.

The difference between a strategic and a tactical threat is the core distinction, and one that should not be trivialized. There are hundreds of militant groups in the world that pose tactical threats, and many of them are indeed affiliated with al Qaeda in some way. As a bombmaker or expert marksman, a single person possesses the skills to kill many people, but that does not make that individual a strategic threat to the United States.

Posing a strategic threat requires the ability to carry out operations in a foreign land, raise and transfer funds, recruit and relocate people, train and hide promising agents, a multitude of reconnaissance and technical skills, and -- most important -- the ability to do all this while avoiding detection before striking at a target of national importance. Yes, an attack against a local mall or a regional airport would be a calamity, but it would not be the sort of strategic attack against national targets that reshapes Western geopolitics as 9/11 did.

Charging that al Qaeda is as strong now as it was in 2001 simply seems a bridge too far. Prior to 9/11, al Qaeda was running multiple operations across multiple regions simultaneously. Its agents were traveling the globe regularly and operating very much in the open financially. Their vision of resurrecting the caliphate was a large and difficult one. Achieving that vision required mobilizing the Muslim masses, and this required spectacular attacks.

A spectacular attack is what they carried out -- once. Since then, all the apex leadership has done is issue a seemingly endless string of empty threats, and consequently its credibility is in tatters. No one doubts al Qaeda's desire to strike at the United States as hard and as often as possible, but the lack of activity indicates its capabilities simply do not measure up.

And even if al Qaeda did not have a goal that required regular attacks, we would still doubt the veracity of this report. If an intelligence agency has penetrated an organization sufficiently to be aware of its full capabilities, the last thing the agency would want to disclose is this success. The agency would keep its intelligence secret until it had neutralized the militants. Shouting to the world that it knows what the militants are up to tells the militants they have been penetrated and starts them on the process of going underground and sealing the leak.

Which, of course, raises the question: What is this report actually seeking to accomplish? That depends on who commissioned the report in the first place, and -- considering the size of the U.S. intelligence community -- it could well mean just about anything. A partial list of justifications could include:
* an effort to pressure Pakistan into cracking down on al Qaeda for fear that the group is just about ready to launch another attack,
* an effort by the U.S. administration to regenerate its political fortunes by reconsolidating national security conservatives under its wing,
* a plea for more funding for this or that branch of U.S. security forces,
* a general warning to force any militants currently planning attacks to pull back and reassess -- in essence, an effort by intelligence services to disrupt any cells they have been unable to penetrate,
* or even an effort by one branch of the government to discredit the efforts of another.
But regardless of which memos are floating around in Washington these days, al Qaeda prime is not feeling all that confident of late. In his most recent taped release (al Qaeda's attacks have sputtered but its multimedia arm is booming), deputy al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri calls on Muslims everywhere to focus their efforts on the jihad in Afghanistan. He does not focus on Iraq, where the fires burn bright, or on Pakistan, where the apex leadership resides.

It appears the Pakistani government is on the verge of finally moving in force against al Qaeda in the country, and a looming U.S.-Iranian rapprochement is making the position of foreign jihadists in Iraq increasingly tenuous. That leaves the movement with only the mountains of Afghanistan for shelter. After all, there is no spot on the globe farther away from what the West might consider friendly shores.

Stratfor is a private intelligence company delivering in-depth analysis, assessments and forecasts on global geopolitical, economic, security and public policy issues. A variety of subscription-based access, free intelligence reports and confidential consulting are available for individuals and corporations.

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