Talk of strategically defeating Al Qaeda is all the rage in the White House these days. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta used the "D-word" in July. President Obama declared in his new counter-terrorism strategy, "We can say with growing confidence… that we have put Al Qaeda on the path to defeat." Compared to the woeful state of the economy, terrorism has become the administration's feel-good story of the year.
"Defeat" is a big word. It is also dangerously misleading. Yes, the United States has made great strides in the last decade to harden targets, improve intelligence and degrade the capabilities of violent Islamist extremists. Osama bin Laden's death was a major accomplishment. But the fight is nowhere close to being won, and America's most perilous times may lie ahead. Three reasons explain why.
The first is that strategically defeating Al Qaeda is not nearly as important as it sounds. After 9/11, Al Qaeda morphed into a more complicated, decentralized and elusive threat consisting of three elements: core Al Qaeda; affiliates or franchise groups operating in places like Yemen and Somalia with loose ties to the core group; and homegrown terrorists inspired by violent extremism, often through the Internet in the comfort of their own living rooms.
Core Al Qaeda's capabilities started degrading in 2001, when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, dismantled training camps, ousted the Taliban and sent Bin Laden running. The CIA has estimated the core group remaining in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region to number 50 to 100 fighters. The last time Bin Laden oversaw a successful operation was 2005, when Al Qaeda struck the London transit system.
But plots by homegrowns and franchise groups have risen dramatically in recent years. The 2009 Ft. Hood shooting, the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, was the work of a homegrown terrorist. The "mastermind" of the 2010 Times Square car bomb plot was a naturalized American citizen trained by the Pakistani Taliban, not Al Qaeda. Another franchise group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was behind the foiled 2009 Christmas Day "underwear bomber" aviation plot and the 2010 plot to explode tampered printer cartridges aboard cargo planes. The Bipartisan Policy Center reported 11 violent Islamist extremist terrorist incidents against the U.S. homeland in 2009, the most since 9/11. Nearly all involved what former CIA Director Mike Hayden calls "a witches' brew" of radicalized Americans and franchise groups.
The second reason why talk of defeat is premature has to do with weapons. Terrorism against Americans is nothing new. The potential for terrorist groups to acquire weapons of mass destruction is. In 1995, a Japanese cult released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 people and injuring thousands. It was the first WMD terrorist attack in modern history, and it sparked a wave of presidential terrorism commissions years before Bin Laden became a household name.
It is this specter of the lone fanatic or small group armed with the world's most devastating weapons that keeps experts up at night. In 2005, 60 leading nuclear scientists and terrorism experts were asked how many believed the odds of a nuclear attack on the U.S. were negligible. Only three or four hands went up; most were far more pessimistic. Today, there is enough nuclear material to build 120,000 weapons. As long as fissile material is poorly stored and rogue states like Iran and North Korea continue their illicit weapons programs, nuclear terrorism remains a haunting possibility.
The third reason is that the FBI has not yet become a first-rate domestic intelligence agency. Analysts, whose work is vital to success, are still second-class citizens, labeled "support staff" alongside secretaries and janitors, and passed over for key jobs, including running the bureau's intelligence units. The FBI's information technology is so antiquated, it belongs in a museum. And the old crime-fighting culture still lives. There is now a move afoot to shrink new classified facilities so that agents don't have to "waste time" away from their cases to read intelligence documents there.
"Strategically defeating Al Qaeda" sounds too good to be true. Because it is.
Amy Zegart is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and the author of "Eyes on Spies: Congress and the United States Intelligence Community."