Aproaching the 10-year anniversary of September 11th, senior U.S. officials have all but declared victory over al-Qaeda. Former top spy and newly-installed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta claimed this summer that the United States was "within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda." Indeed, a recent Washington Post headline declared: "Officials: Al-Qaeda Close to Collapse."
Killing Osama bin Laden undoubtedly was a major milestone. Counterterrorism officials trumpet that the al-Qaeda reins are now held by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is commonly seen as uninspiring and divisive. "I have yet to see a debriefing of a suspect in a significant terrorism plot who said, "I was inspired by the videotapes of Ayman al-Zawahiri,'" a former intelligence deputy recently remarked.
Yet analysis that places personalities above ideas is deeply flawed. It provides Americans a false sense of security, blinding them to the significant terrorism challenges we face.
Consider Bin Laden's vision. According to the Congressional Research Service, Bin Laden and his associates "have sought to serve as the vanguard of a religious movement that inspires Muslims and other individuals aspiring to join a jihadi movement to help defend and purify Islam through violent means. The name "Qaeda' means "base' or "foundation,' upon which its members hope to build a robust, geographically diverse network." We can't ignore their goal.
In fact, al-Qaeda cells and associates are located in dozens of countries, with about 10 major "franchises" in all. A broader examination of the ideology underpinning al-Qaeda reveals a movement that is alive and well, and as dangerous as ever. As the State Department's point man for counterterrorism testified to my subcommittee shortly before Bin Laden's death, "We continue to see a strong flow of new recruits into many of the most dangerous terrorist organizations." Many are young and tech-savvy.
In Western Europe, a large, mobile, and educated Muslim population includes some who are attracted to terrorism. Studies have shown that an alarming number of British citizens adhere to violent extremism. Europeans hold passports that do not require a visa to enter the United States, making Europe's insecurity ours.
Nigeria, Africa's most populous country and largest oil producer, is threatened by widening currents of extremism in its Muslim north. Increasingly, "Boko Haram"--whose name translates to "education is prohibited"--is collaborating with al-Qaeda affiliates. It recently bombed the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, the capital.
Americans are also being inspired by al-Qaeda's ideology. Dozens of Somali-Americans have ventured to Somalia to join al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda's East African arm. One detonated himself among Shabaab opponents in 2008, the first suicide bombing carried out by an American. In August 2010, the Justice Department charged 14 people in the U.S. with supporting al-Shabaab. Last year, Britain's MI5 chief noted that "it is only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside al-Shabaab." We need continued coordination with our British allies to prevent such an occurrence, either there or here.
But perhaps nowhere is al-Qaeda's ideology more alive and well than in Pakistan. Violent extremism is not confined to the tribal region of that country, and is taking deep root in Pakistani society. The campus of Punjab University is terrorized by student radicals. The Pakistani military is increasingly worried that its ranks have been penetrated by militants bent on the government's overthrow.
Most alarming is Pakistani-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terrorist group responsible for the 2008 rampage in Mumbai, India. Its roots watered by Pakistani intelligence, the group continues to operate without hindrance. With thousands of facilities within Pakistan and relationships with schools and clinics, the group has been dubbed the "Hezbollah of South Asia." Another high-profile LeT attack on neighboring India could spark war between the two nuclear-armed rivals.
The Internet has emerged as a "virtual caliphate," a haven for extremists to intensify their hatred. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has produced an online magazine, Inspire, which covers topics such as bomb-making and ideology. It aims to show individuals that they do not need to travel to an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan or Yemen to carry out attacks against the West. We have been slow to counter this tool, admittedly no easy task.
Those attracted to Osama bin Laden's twisted ideas will continue to wreak havoc. As a 2009 U.S. Agency for International Development report on violent extremism noted, "We need to recognize that many violent extremists are moved primarily by an unshakable belief in the superiority of certain values; by a perceived obligation to carry out God's command; or by an abiding commitment to destroy a system they view as evil and/or oppressive." While this U.S. government report has identified the problem, public diplomacy efforts to counter it have been anemic. Most U.S. agencies shy from such characterization of the threat.
For years after 9/11, conventional wisdom was that the U.S. would soon suffer another major terrorist attack. Thankfully, the experts were wrong. Credit is due to the countless security professionals who have worked effectively, including with allies. Efforts far afield, especially killing al-Qaeda operatives, have helped. The U.S. has paid a heavy financial price for its heightened security, but the multitude of derailed terrorist plots tells us it is necessary.
The difficulties of Iraq and Afghanistan underscore the need for extreme prudence in foreign commitments. Nation building is unaffordable and beyond the tolerance of the American people today. The once in vogue notion that every potential terrorist sanctuary must be made governable and secure has proven very problematic. The world is too big, with too many intractable conflicts. Covert and other small-footprint efforts will have to continue to improve.
The U.S. also needs to prioritize. The greatest threat is that terrorists acquire weapons of mass destruction. Common sense says priority should be given to Iran, a state sponsor of terrorism with a vibrant nuclear program. The security of Pakistan's nuclear program likewise is a grave concern.
Parts of al-Qaeda have been hammered. Well done. But that is just part of a larger struggle, which demands sustained and intense effort. That is the world we have lived in since 9/11. Unfortunately, it will last for some time. It is not time for victory
Congressman Ed Royce (R-CA) serves as Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade.