Whatever happened to the war on terror? Unless you've been paying close attention, you could be forgiven for thinking that America's struggle against radical Islam is largely a thing of the past.
This is not by accident. In the two and a half years since the May 2011 killing of al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden, the Obama administration has gone to great lengths to define this effort down to the fight against al-Qaida – and to declare victory in the latter. Administration officials (including President Obama himself) have repeatedly intoned that the bin Laden network is "decimated" and "on the path to defeat." Strategically, meanwhile, the White House has moved on, disengaging from the Middle East in favor of a "rebalancing" to Asia.
But even under the narrow construction offered by the White House, the empirical data provides a considerably more sober reading of the current state of counterterrorism play. This is so for at least two reasons.
First, al-Qaida is adapting. Tactical successes by the U.S. and its allies have helped to erode the organization's core leadership in recent years. But the decline of al-Qaida "central" has been mirrored by the rise of the organization's regional franchises. Indeed, some experts suggest that this transformation is part of an intentional "affiliate strategy" on the part of the bin Laden network. And today, those affiliates arguably have become as capable in their respective geographic regions as the umbrella organization that birthed them ever was.
One is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is growing in both power and reach in the southern Persian Gulf, where it has become a major player in the unfolding civil war now underway in Yemen. Three years ago, Yemen's government estimated that the group – which is the product of a January 2009 merger of al-Qaida's Saudi and Yemeni branches – had just 200 to 300 members. Today, by contrast, it boasts an estimated 1,000 men under arms, control significant swathes of Yemeni territory and represents a significant, sustained challenge to the stability of the central government in Sana'a.
Another is al-Qaida's North African branch, known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. The group, which was spawned in September 2006 when Algeria's radical Salafist Group for Call and Combat officially joined the al-Qaida fold, is now active in many parts of the region, including northeastern Algeria, Niger and Mauritania, as well as the lawless Sahel and Sahara. It has also become a power broker in Mali, where over the past year it assisted affiliate groups in their attempted conquest of the country.
Still others, from Somalia's al-Shabaab to Syria's Jabhat al-Nusra, are also making their presence felt throughout the Middle East – and beyond.
Second, al-Qaida is innovating. In response to its strategic setbacks, the bin Laden network has begun to adapt, both intellectually and strategically. A new generation of jihadist thinkers (like the notorious Abu Musab al-Suri) has helped the organization to rebound from recent setbacks in Iraq, refine its strategic objectives and craft a more sustainable, global agenda. Strategically, meanwhile, al-Qaida is working diligently to neutralize America's technological edge; among the most interesting disclosures provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, for example, has been the revelation that its engineers are attempting to hack, coopt or neutralize the unmanned aerial vehicles that have become the tip of America's spear in counterterrorism operations against the bin Laden network.
All of which is a long way of saying that, a dozen years after the terrible attacks on New York and Washington propelled America into a new conflict with radical Islam, it is still far too early to be sanguine about the outcome of that struggle. After all, al-Qaida certainly isn't.