As we approach the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a debate is raging among counterterrorism experts: what is the current state of al Qaeda?
Have the group's serious losses in Iraq left it fatally weakened? Or do one safe haven and several new fronts make it as dangerous as ever?
Let's begin this discussion by examining the state of al Qaeda in what the Bush administration considers the central front in the War on Terror: Iraq.
Click play to hear Pat Robertson's analysis following CBN News Terror Analyst Erick Stakelbeck's report.
Al Qaeda had made Iraq the centerpiece of its mission to establish a global Islamic caliphate. The group's master plan called for victory in Iraq, followed by similar conquests in Jordan, Egypt, and the Levant region, with Jerusalem as the final prize.
But the script hasn't gone according to plan. The security situation in Iraq has improved dramatically over the past year-and-a-half, with the U.S. troop surge and Sunni tribal awakening combining to leave al Qaeda's Iraq franchise in tatters.
"Al Qaeda in Iraq, in some ways, is a victim of its own success," former CIA officer Bruce Riedel told CBN News. "It was so bloody, so violent, it was so nihilistic in its approach, that it was bound to create some kind of counterreaction."
Far from Dead
Riedel has advised three U.S presidents. Now at the Brookings Institution in Washington, he's the author of the new book, The Search for al-Qaeda. He says the organization has taken a beating in Iraq--but is far from dead there and elsewhere.
"In my judgment, al Qaeda is at least as dangerous as it was in 2001 because it survived a global counterterrorism offensive by every intelligence service in the world.," Riedel said. "And it's still standing, and it's still issuing orders to its followers, and it's still engaging in terrorism on a global stage."
"Bin Laden in particular has become a symbol of this group's ability to survive despite everything that has been thrown against it," he continued. "The fact that he is still out there almost seven years after September 11th is a powerful rallying cry for this organization."
"Now, the loss of al Qaeda in Iraq as an effective organization has definitely hurt al Qaeda. But I don't think it's a deadly blow because the al Qaeda core is still rebuilding, operating with virtual impunity in Pakistan," he said.
Al-Qaeda's Safe Havens
The 9/11 Commission Report said that terrorist groups need safe havens from which to operate and plan attacks. Al Qaeda has found just that in the tribal regions of Pakistan.
Experts say al Qaeda's core leadership--including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri--is based in this lawless area. They fled here from Afghanistan after the U.S toppled the Taliban in late 2001.
"A number of al Qaeda senior leaders went to the Pakistani tribal areas and went about embedding themselves in tribal society," said terrorism expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. "Several major plots against the West have been planned in Pakistan."
"Militants are again being trained in Pakistan's tribal areas," he added. "Some of these militants are being trained for missions against the West. Last year, there were 29 training camps in Pakistan. This year, it's about 100."
The deadly London and Madrid transit bombings were both traced back to Pakistan's tribal region. So was a foiled 2006 plot to blow up 10 transatlantic airliners traveling from Britain to the United States.
"It would have outdone September 11th, if not in terms of total casualties, certainly in terms of total terror," Riedel said of that 2006 plot.
But al-Qaeda's sphere of influence extends far beyond Pakistan.
"Think of al Qaeda as if it was a global business organization.," Riedel stated. "You have the CEO and the headquarters based in Pakistan. Then you have franchises based around the Muslim world."
In addition to Pakistan, the group is currently active in Somalia, Yemen, and the Islamic Maghreb of North Africa. It's franchises in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia, once strong, have been weakened significantly but are still active.
Lebanon and the Gaza Strip have been targeted for new al-Qaeda "startups," and western Europe--particularly Britain--has served as an al-Qaeda base for several years now.
Indeed, several key ingredients seem to be in place for a renewed al-Qaeda offensive against the West: global reach, a safe haven from which to operate and a steady flow of cash from the so-called "Golden Chain" of terrorist financiers in the Persian Gulf region.
Al-Qaeda's Global Threat
But terrorism expert Marc Sageman has a different view. He told CBN News that al Qaeda is clearly diminished as a global threat.
Sageman, a scholar-in-residence with the New York City Police Department, believes the global movement of young jihadists that al-Qaeda has inspired is the greatest danger the West faces today - not the group itself.
"They're not strictly al Qaeda," he said. "But they do things on behalf of this whole al Qaeda social movement that's kind of linked up by a very simple ideology--namely, that the West is at war against Islam."
Sageman's book, Leaderless Jihad, argues that local, loose-knit cells of young Muslims pose a bigger threat today than international terror networks like al Qaeda.
"The social movement that the old al Qaeda has been able to inspire has increased dramatically. And that movement is fairly disconnected," he said. "It's a self-generating group of wannabes who want to do things on behalf of al Qaeda but have not been able to link up."
Since 9/11, several terrorist plots in the West have involved homegrown terrorists. Some, like in London and Madrid, have been successful. Others, like a 2007 plot to attack New Jersey's Fort Dix, have been narrowly averted by authorities.
"A lot of the interactivity takes place in chat rooms or in forums on the Internet." said Sageman. "What you have are really these spontaneous, self-organizing groups everywhere in the world that are kind of disconnected from al Qaeda central. But it doesn't matter, because they get the message over the Internet."
Global Jihad Evolution
As the global jihad has evolved, however, one thing has remained consistent: a local cell's success rate increases dramatically when it has the world's most notorious terror group behind it.
"It has to have some sort of central glue. it has to have somebody that can connect operatives from Morocco to financiers from Saudi Arabia with ideologues in other countries with other capabilities," Gartenstein-Ross said.
"And al Qaeda's central leadership is the only terrorist organization out there that's shown the capability to be the kind of glue that connects these disparate elements," he said.
So where does al Qaeda go from here? The failure in Iraq has momentarily hurt the group's brand. But deep within the tribal regions of northwest Pakistan, al-Qaeda's hiearchy is recharging.
The group is currently making a concerted effort to recruit white Europeans who can blend more easily in the West. It also remains committed to acquiring weapons of mass destruction - chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear.
"Al Qaeda, as it thinks about attacking America, wants to be even more spectacular than either September 11th or the failed plot in August of 2006," said Riedel. "They're not going to do something like shooting up a mall in the United States because they know that wouldn't be seen as of the same magnitude."
In other words, the bar has been set very high.
Originally published August 13, 2008.