Al Qaeda Still a Threat, but Hurt in Many Ways
By Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 19, 2002 Coalition actions in Afghanistan and around the world have hurt the Al Qaeda terrorist network in many ways, but the organization remains a threat to America and its allies.
Al Qaeda was most severely hurt when the coalition forced them from Afghanistan, its safe haven. "That was the one place it could do basically all of the business it wanted to do in one safe, controlled spot," a defense official explained. "(Al Qaeda) had freedom of action, freedom of training, freedom of movement, freedom to meet (in Afghanistan)."
The official spoke to Pentagon reporters on the condition of anonymity. He said it would be next to impossible for Al Qaeda members to set up a new centralized command and control element such as they had in Afghanistan. "They have not found a spot that would give them the same support as Afghanistan," he said.
Osama bin Laden set up his terrorist organization in Afghanistan in 1996 and basically had free rein to run terrorist training camps and to direct global terrorist operations. Bin Laden hasn't been caught, but he and his key deputies have a harder job of directing Al Qaeda operations while they're on the run, the official said.
This will force Al Qaeda to spread out many of its key operations. "We believe the leadership is going to be more decentralized, ... more of a franchise-type thing," the official said.
But bin Laden's propensity to plan ahead makes it harder for law enforcement and intelligence officials to get a handle on how dangerous Al Qaeda still is to the United States.
"Bin Laden basically always thought three steps ahead. He'd have plans in the works, multiple plans, not just one," the official said. "Some of those plans, we believe, are still out there."
Forcing the organization to decentralize may, in some ways, make it harder for law enforcement officers to foil Al Qaeda's plots. The official explained that lower-level groups tend to be less organized and their plans less grand, but they tend to leave smaller footprints, which makes them harder to find and track.
The U.S. response to the Sept. 11 attacks had many other less obvious effects on Al Qaeda as well. "Shutting down the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan has ... put on notice some countries that may have been (considering) supporting Al Qaeda," the official said. "It's put those countries on notice that basically that's not a good idea."
He also said he thinks it will be harder for Al Qaeda to recruit. After a string of "victories," including the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, the 2000 bombing of the Navy's USS Cole in Yemen, and the Sept. 11 attacks, Al Qaeda may have been feeling pretty invincible.
The defense official said he thinks coalition successes in Afghanistan have taken away some of that "air of invincibility." The effectiveness and speed of coalition military actions knocked the terrorists down a peg or two, he said.
He said some potential recruits may think twice. "The ones who were borderline thinking of joining the organization may back off a little bit, saying, ... 'I don't want to end up in a body bag,'" the official explained.
U.S. officials believe Al Qaeda won't go quietly, but will try to "reconstitute" in a form different from before. In whatever form they end up, Al Qaeda will be a threat to Americans for some time.
Senior Al Qaeda leaders are on the run, the official said. Killing and capturing others has disrupted the organization, he added, but not shut it down or killed it.
"This is a long-term process," he said. "It's not going to be done in a month or two months."