There's an interesting read in today's Washington Post by former CIA Officer John Brennan, former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Mr. Brennan notes that Osama bin Laden's days are probably numbered, but his "vision" will likely live on after his demise. He argues that the U.S. should re-double its efforts to "get" the Al Qaeda leader, to destroy the myth of his invincibility. Brennan also observes that the U.S. and its allies have no real plan for countering bin Laden's vision, which has attracted followers across the Muslim world.
I will agree with Brennan's theory--up to a point. He observes that bin Laden is "securely hibernating" somewhere along the Afghan-Pakistan border, deriving warmth from such developments as Hamas's recent victory in the Palestinian elections, Islamist violence in Europe, and the recent cartoon riots around the globe. According to Brennan, this proves that bin Laden is advancing his dream of global domination by an Islamic caliphate.
There's only one problem with that scenario. Bin Laden moved into seclusion because he had to; his once-secure compounds in Afghanistan are now under control of the U.S. military or Afghan security forces. The increasing isolation of the Al Qaeda leader has forced the organization to adopt a de-centralized approach to jihad, with local cells assuming a far greater role in planning and conducting attacks. While this approach has produced some tactical victories (notably the transit bombings in London and Madrid), it is not likely to replicate the success of 9-11. As we've argued in the past, bin Laden must, at some point, prove capable of staging another "spectacular" to ensure continued financial support for his cause. Over the past year, there has been some grumbling within Al Qaeda ranks that the movement is losing steam, and that hte organization must mount another large-scale operation to keep the base energized and expanding. Shuttling between caves and mud huts makes that process infinitely more difficult.
Additionally, the security of bin Laden's hiberation site is increasingly in jeopardy. Recent drone attacks that killed senior Al Qaida operatives are evidence that the intelligence net is slowly tightening around bin Laden, and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. A respected British security firm recently predicted that bin Laden, Zawahiri (or both) will be killed or captured this year. I'm not quite as optimistic in my forecast, but bin Laden's "hibernation" is clearly a sign of success in the War on Terror.
Regarding bin Laden's "vision," I share Mr. Brennan's concern about our inability to counter Al Qaeda's propaganda) in the mainstream media and on the internet. We've written at length about the "information war" for hearts and minds in the Middle East, a conflict where we appear to be fighting a losing battle. But I disagree with Brennan's central thesis, that we have failed to advance an alternative " vision for the Islamic World. By liberating Iraq and Afghanistan, we have provided a different model for 50 million people that once lived under repression. And, the model seems to be working to some degree. Democracy in Afghanistan has been a success, despite a slight resurgence by the Taliban. Bin Laden's former hosts have been largely reduced to mounting IED attacks against Afghan government and NATO troops, because their other military and political strategies have failed miserably.
In Iraq, the insurgency remains a serious problem, and last week's wave of sectarian violence revealed problems with Iraqi police and Interior Ministry security teams. But the new Iraqi Army performed well, and the overwhelming majority of the populace resisted calls for civil war, obeyed the curfews, and rode out the crisis. Iraq's political and religious leaders also demonstrated a willingness to work together, although some of those relationships are contentious at best.
As demonstrated in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a viable alterntative to bin Laden's 8th century social and political model. But communicating that vision is often as imporatant as all the humanitarian aid and infrastructure projects we funding across the Middle East. Our inability to communicate our messages of democracy and opportunity gives hope to bin Laden, who has little trouble in articulating his brand of Islamofacism.