Al Qaeda's Resurgence
FOUR YEARS AGO, HIS WORDS WOULD have represented an almost unquestioned consensus view. In late January, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, Dell Dailey, described al Qaeda's top leadership as isolated, saying that they have "much, much less central authority and much, much less capability to reach out."
He is not alone in this assessment. In July 2007, Stratfor's Peter Zeihan argued that while a few thousand people may claim to be al Qaeda members, "the real al Qaeda does not exercise any control over them. . . . The United States is now waging a war against jihadism as a phenomenon, rather than against any specific transnational jihadist movement."
The most prominent proponent of this view has been Jason Burke, a reporter for London's Observer and the author of Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam. By the time that book hit newsstands in 2003, Burke was already arguing that the "nearest thing to 'Al-Qaeda,' as popularly understood," only existed for a five-year period, and the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001 showcased "the final scenes of its destruction." Now, Burke contends, we are "in a 'post-bin Laden' phase of Islamic militancy."
Unfortunately, all these men are wrong--and we will fight the war on terror less effectively if we continue to harbor mistaken assumptions about the al Qaeda network. It is important not to overstate what the terror group's leadership needs to do to remain relevant.
Even if the central leadership's role is limited to connecting terrorist nodes--pairing skill sets, financing, and operatives--it can transform terrorist groups from disunited regional problems into cohesive adversaries capable of threatening Western societies. Moreover, the safe havens that al Qaeda's leaders have gained in recent years magnify their lethal capabilities. (...)