Today's U.K. Telegraph has an interesting assessment of the current "state" of Al Qaida. British terrorism experts tell reporter David Blair that Al Qaida's leaders, now located in the tribal lands of western Pakistan, are secure enough to "provide strategic direction" to terror cells around the world. They also note that the terrorist organization continues to expand, aligning itself with groups in Algeria and Lebanon.
But despite these successes, Al Qaida has also suffered some serious reversals in recent months. The Telegraph mentions bin Laden's effort to topple the Saudi Royal Family; that prompted a major anti-terror crackdown in the kingdom that resulted in the arrest of more than 2,000 suspects. As a result, the Royal Family--one of bin Laden's sworn enemies--is probably more secure now than when Al Qaida launched its campaign.
Additionally, the terror organization has been unable to topple Pakistan President Pervez Musharaff from power, despite a series of assassination attempts and attacks against Islamabad's military forces in the tribal areas. Much to bin Laden's chagrin, Musharaff remains in control, although terrorist pressure did force the Pakistani president to sign a pair of disastrous accourds with tribal leaders that have provided new sanctuary for Al Qaida leaders.
For whatever reason, the Telegraph also ignores two other recent defeats for the terrorist groups and its leaders. Al Qaida terrorists have been largely purged from Iraq's Al Anbar Province, as local leaders align themselves with coalition forces and the Iraqi government. Additionally, an Al Qaida-affiliated expansion in the Horn of Africa failed earlier this year, when U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia and toppled the Islamic Courts government. Al Qaida-linked terrorists still stage attacks in Mogadishu (and other locations), but the Ethiopian incursion--with support from American airpower and special operations advisors--dashed bin Laden's hopes for creating a new safe haven in eastern Africa.
Mr. Blair describes the current War on Terror as a "stalemate," and that might be a fair conclusion. But the real question is whether Al Qaida benefits from the current state of affairs. George Bush has paid a heavy political price for slow progress in Iraq, but the war has taken a toll on Al Qaida as well. Osama bin Laden has show no willingness to abandon a struggle that he's described as a central front in the war against the west. Consequently, fighters and resources that might have been devoted to other attacks still pour into the Iraqi meat grinder. Chaos continues, but Al Qaida has been unable (so far) to drive the "Crusaders" from Iraq, or spark a full-blown civil war between Sunnis and Shias. If more tribes and regions follow the Al Anbar model, bin Laden may find it impossible to achieve his objectives in Iraq.
Additionally, bin Laden is aware that his vows to renew terror attacks in the west have gone largely unfulfilled. It's been almost two years since the last major strike in Europe (the London transit bombings), and almost six years since the events of 9-11. Al Qaida's "American" spokesman recently vowed new strikes that would "surpass" the 2001 attacks, but it's unclear if Al Qaida has the resources and revitalized command structure to make good on those promises.
There's little doubt that Al Qaida remains the preeminent terror threat for the U.S. and the rest of the western world. But for all their reported successes, the group has also suffered severe setbacks, many of them resulting from the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, and the attack against Iraq in 2003. Al Qaida's efforts to rebuild and expand provide a compelling reason to continue our missions in both countries. Without those efforts, bin Laden and his minions would be free to train even more insurgents, and set their sights on new, "spectacular" strikes in the west.
There's a widely-held perception that a stalemate works to the terrorist's advantage. However, that isn't always true, provided that the western power is willing to stay the course, and undercut insurgent support among the local population. It's an approach that worked during the British campaign in Malaysia (though it took 12 years), it's working in Al Anbar, and it may work in the rest of Iraq, too. But we've got to show our enemies in Iraq--and our friends--that we're in it for the long haul. One of Al Qaida's strongest traits is patience, a quality we must be willing to match to ultimately win the war.