By William Tucker
September 18, 2017
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
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
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
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 re-emergence of Hamza bin Laden, Osama bin
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 Centre 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 short-sighted.
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
The Continued Primacy of the
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
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
Terrorism, on the other hand, is adaptable
as a tactic. But the group that resorts to terrorism as a tactic has less room
to manoeuvre 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.
These shifts are not always seismic and can
take years before they become truly visible. But this change will affect U.S.
behaviour 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.