More than six years after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and billions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost in the war on terror, one question in particular remains on the minds of many Americans: What lies ahead for Osama bin-Laden and his al-Qaida network?
Even with the United States committing vast resources to the war on terror since September 11, 2001 and other nations joining the worldwide fight against terrorism after attacks on their countries, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden remains at large and his terrorist organization is still undefeated. Bin Laden is believed to be holed up in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has not been seen in public in years. But messages attributed to him occasionally surface to taunt the West.
Bruce Hoffman is a terrorism analyst at the United States Military Academy. He says there is a simple reason why bin Laden and al-Qaida are still going strong. "[In al-Qaida] something of a corporate succession plan seems to exist where even when we take out key al-Qaida commanders and operatives, there is always someone waiting in the wings to replace them."
Hoffman says al-Qaida is always recruiting new militants and that the terrorist group moved into Iraq because it is fertile ground with large numbers of unemployed teenagers. "Precisely those countries across North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia where the al-Qaida message has had greatest resonance are the same countries that today have an overwhelmingly large, disproportionately large, population that is young, under the age of 17," says Hoffman.
Al-Qaida also is not an easy target. It is evasive, like other revolutionary movements. But it is not based in a particular country and it is not trying to seize power in any one nation.
According to Zuhair Humadi, a senior adviser to Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, "They will help other organizations in their attempt to take control of a country, as they did with the Taliban in Afghanistan and later with other groups in Somalia and in Iraq."
Humadi says al-Qaida's success lies in its sophisticated manipulation of the international media and that without the Internet, al-Qaida would be just several bands of uncoordinated local terrorists.
Analyst Bruce Hoffman says he is concerned that al-Qaida might try to attack the United States ahead of 2008's legislative and presidential elections. "We have been enormously successful, enormously lucky as well, in not having any terrorist incident in the past six years. But I would argue that in the next 10 months, we are entering into a dangerous period in the lead up to the elections."
But analyst Peter Bergen at the New America Foundation is not as concerned. He says if al-Qaida were capable of such an attack, it would have done it to mark the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks last year. He says he is worried more about possible terrorism in Europe and al-Qaida broadening its reach. "In the future, al-Qaida's strategy would be to create more safe havens not only in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border [region], but [also] extending that in Iraq, in Somalia and perhaps also in Darfur," says Bergen. "[Osama] Bin laden has mentioned Darfur quite a lot recently and I would anticipate that as the United Nations gets more involved, al-Qaida will be drawn there -- just as they were drawn to Somalia."
A Weakened Image
But Bergen says al-Qaida is not without weakness. He says the terrorist group has made a strategic mistake in carrying out attacks that have killed Muslim civilians, and that now many Muslims have a different view of al-Qaida and bin-Laden. He says the terror network never had the support of the masses, only of the militants and extremists, and that these killings have damaged its image.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Doran says the latest example of this damaged image is in Iraq's Anbar province where local Sunni residents are turning against al-Qaida. He says killing other Muslims after branding them non-Muslims is one element of the network's ideology that carries the seeds of al-Qaida's destruction. "Al-Qaida makes it legitimate for a Muslim individual to designate other Muslims as apostates and to kill them on the basis of that designation. And this is an ideology has been spread globally. And that is what allows them to engage in such indiscriminate use of violence," says Doran.
The Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense says al-Qaida's practice of attacking Sunni Muslims has put al-Qaida in a very difficult position because they want to present themselves as representatives of the Iraqis as well as of the Islamic tradition. U.S. success in Iraq, Doran says, does not mean that al-Qaida is less dangerous. But, he says, experience in Anbar province has shown the way to combat global ideological support for terrorism.
"When people are put face-to-face with the choice of this ideology and what it really means and the alternative, if given the capability to counter it, they will choose the alternative," says Doran. "But for us to do it effectively, that means we will have to really understand the specific local conditions in which people are living, what the choice is that they feel that they are facing and to craft policies that are responsive to those conditions."
Doran says the struggle against al-Qaida in Iraq will be won incrementally as has been the case in Anbar province. But the overall fight against al-Qaida, he says, cannot be won by military means alone and that it must include working closely with Muslim allies.