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A Year After Bin Laden’s Death, How Strong Is al-Qaida?

April 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
A year ago, a U.S. strike successfully eliminated al-Qaida's leader, but Osama bin Laden's death was just one step in the decline of the most feared terror network in the world. Judy Woodruff, The Washington Post's David Ignatius and the New American Foundation's Brian Fishman assess the current state and influence of al-Qaida.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more, we turn to Brian Fishman, a fellow at the New America Foundation and a researcher with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, and David Ignatius, a columnist for The Washington Post who has had access to some of the documents found in the bin Laden raid.

We thank you both for being with us.

David, I want to start with you.

One year after the killing of Osama bin Laden, how much of a threat is al-Qaida?

DAVID IGNATIUS, columnist, The Washington Post: From everything we know, core al-Qaida really has been devastated. Bin Laden and his top deputies, his most important deputy, Atiyah al-Rahman, the person he asked to carry out a plan to kill President Obama and Gen. Petraeus, they’re all dead.

And he was so worried about the effects of our Predator drone attacks in the tribal areas of Pakistan that he actually told his people in one of the documents that I read to get out, that it’s just too dangerous for you there.

So core al-Qaida is decimated. The affiliates are still operating. The one in Yemen, which bin Laden himself said in one of these documents had the best chance of any of the al-Qaida affiliates, is still going strong, to the point that we have had to step up our Predator attacks there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Brian Fishman, how do you see what’s left of al-Qaida?

BRIAN FISHMAN, counterterrorism research fellow, New America Foundation: Well, I agree with David. The organization, especially the central core, has been decimated.

But the organization still does have some strength. When you think about al-Qaida, it’s really trying to do two things. On the one hand, it’s trying to conduct attacks against the U.S. homeland and the West, and on the other hand it’s trying to build what they would call emirates or bases of support in various locales around the world. The most important of those right now is in Yemen.

But there’s still an al-Qaida organization in Iraq, North Africa, Somalia and still this small group in Pakistan as well. I think that what’s really interesting about al-Qaida today is that, as much as we have decimated the group through drone strikes and those sorts of things, al-Qaida really stabbed itself in the foot, especially with its targeting of Muslims.

Between 2004 and 2009, a study by some of my colleagues at West Point found that 85 percent of al-Qaida’s victims were Muslims. And that really belies al-Qaida’s lie where they say and have tried to advance themselves as the vanguard of Muslims around the world, while at the same time they are killing Muslims more than anybody else.

And I think that that as much as anything has undermined al-Qaida’s ability to be a coherent and cohesive terrorist organization going forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, David, they have hurt themselves as much as they have been hurt by the U.S. and others?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, bin Laden himself in the year or so before his death was so convinced that al-Qaida had tarnished its name by killing Muslims, by this collateral damage fighting against the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan, but leaving so many Muslims dead, that he actually wanted to change the organization’s name.

So, from our standpoint, the best thing that happened is that this violent terrorist means of jihad, means of striking against foreign influence in the Muslim world has been discredited.

What you see is still strong is the idea that bin Laden and so many other Muslims have that Western influence is too pervasive. They want it out. And so we have seen in these Arab uprisings over the last year a continuing force for that idea, which was an idea that bin Laden had too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Brian Fishman, the organization may be degraded, but the idea, the philosophy, the — driving al-Qaida may be as strong as it was?

BRIAN FISHMAN: Well, I disagree with that a little bit.

I mean, I think that certainly there is frustration in the Arab and Muslim world about what they, what folks might consider, you know, too much American or Western influence. But al-Qaida’s ideology goes beyond that and really recommends a violent means of changing the political dynamic in the Middle East, and also prescribes this very virulent form of what they would call Islamic law, but that I think a lot of folks in the region would reject. Right?

So you can be frustrated with the United States and not support al-Qaida. And I think that you see that in some of the political Islamist movements that have sprung up and achieved some sort of power in the wake of the revolutions in the Middle East.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, David, pick up on that. That’s what you mentioned a minute ago, the Arab spring, the Arab awakening.

How — what does that say about al-Qaida? Is it an affirmation or is it something very different?

DAVID IGNATIUS: No, as Brian says, what’s happened in the last year is a rejection of the super-violent tactics that bin Laden and al-Qaida have used to try to purge this Western influence from the Islamic world.

But that idea is still there, and the people who were the kind of ideological forbearers, Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, a key Muslim Brotherhood figure, those are the people that many of these new Islamist politicians who are in office, members of the Egyptian Parliament, across the — these are the — they look to these people and their indignation against the West and the desire to have a separate kind of life.

And I think that — you know, again, the best thing going forward is that people are doing this now through parliament, through elections. They may reject the West, but they’re not trying to blow up Americans in these countries. And that’s a big change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that how you would see it, Brian Fishman, that it’s there, but it’s not the direct threat to the U.S. that al-Qaida has been?

BRIAN FISHMAN: Yes.

I think, in many ways, the Arab spring revolutions, especially their — in Egypt, where it was a relatively peaceful revolution, was a clear repudiation of al-Qaida’s ideology and strategy for changing the political dynamics in the Middle East.

But I think it’s also important to note that while there is sort of a shared intellectual lineage between the Muslim Brotherhood and groups like al-Qaida, today, al-Qaida looks at groups like the Muslim Brotherhood as its foremost enemy, even more so than the United States, because it sees groups like that as competing for the same constituencies that it wants to lead.

And al-Qaida knows that it’s not going to lose a lot of supporters to the United States directly, but it will lose supporters to the Muslim Brotherhood if groups like that are able to demonstrate that they can seize political power, and really influence the way that governance is structured in that part of the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And does — and, David, in a final few seconds, what posture then does the United States have in that struggle between al-Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, we’re going to keep going after — the U.S. will keep going after al-Qaida wherever it finds people who are dedicated to the — violent change and killing of Americans.

It reminds me a little of the situation in Europe in 1948, 1949, where the U.S. looked to the social democrats, to the people on the left who were not violent communists, who were going to try to change Europe. Maybe we’ve turned that corner. A year after, that would be the hope that I would express.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Ignatius, Brian Fishman, we thank you both.