After Benghazi, Is al-Qaeda Back?

Terrorist cells continue to spread, but they now face bigger problems than the U.S.

When trying to understand a strange action by the U.S. government, I have found it’s usually best explained by incompetence rather than conspiracy. Republicans have claimed that the Obama Administration deliberately deceived the American public about the terrorist attack in Ben­ghazi by describing it as a spontaneous mob uprising rather than a planned operation. But if the Administration knew from the start that it was a terrorist attack, did it really think that it could conceal this from the world? That the Libyan government would make no investigation? That there would be no eyewitnesses in a public place where hundreds had gathered? A far more plausible explanation is that in the chaotic aftermath of the attack, the Administration—too hastily and without proper analysis—put out the reports it was receiving. That’s clumsy, but it’s not treason.

The larger issue that the attack raises, however, which is fair game for a campaign conversation, is what the events in Benghazi tell us about terrorist organizations, in particular al-Qaeda. After years of being in retreat, is al-Qaeda back?

After 9/11, we all worried about the spread of al-Qaeda and its ideology. There were attacks in Bali, Madrid, London, ­Riyadh and Istanbul. But in fact, governments around the world had begun taking the group seriously, tracking its money, chasing its people and attacking its bases. Soon al-Qaeda was unable to carry out its signature operations—against high-value U.S. targets like ships and embassies and other government installations. So instead of striking where it wanted, al-Qaeda—or groups operating in its name—attacked where possible. This meant hitting nightclubs, cafés, train stations and hotels. And that meant killing locals, not Americans. All of a sudden, Muslims, who had not been too exercised about al-Qaeda, began distancing themselves from it, especially in places like Saudi Arabia that had been critical sources of funding for the group.

Meanwhile, the pressure intensified. The Obama Administration dramati­cally ramped up counterterrorism in Afghanistan—and more important, Pakistan—and destroyed the top leadership of the organization, including, of course, Osama bin Laden. Facing this onslaught, al-Qaeda has been shattered and has become less a coherent, centrally controlled group and more a brand, lending its name—and perhaps a little know-how—to militants in other countries. There is, however, a danger of overreacting to these new “al-Qaeda” offshoots. Remember bin Laden’s words: “All that we have to do is to send two mujahedin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-­qaeda in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses.”

The strongest of the new groups was al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen. Newer ­branches have sprung up in Somalia, Mali and now perhaps Libya. The group that appears to have planned the Ben­ghazi attack seems to have a very tenuous connection to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) but not al-Qaeda central. In all these cases, however, the militants have followed a similar path: find a weak state and operate within that territory, claiming a link to al-Qaeda. The lesson of Libya is that as states fail, terrorists succeed.

But as these groups rise, they come under fire, and not just from the U.S. After a Yemeni government attack, AQAP has lost its stronghold in the south of that country. The Somali government, along with forces from neighboring Kenya, has begun to battle Somalia’s homegrown jihadis. As AQIM grows, it will find itself under pressure. A senior U.S. official told me that France had determined that this group—operating in former French colonies—is France’s No. 1 national-security threat.

The main reason al-Qaeda faces a more challenging future is the Arab Spring. Al-Qaeda came into being as a radical movement opposed to repressive (and secular) governments. It is now facing many democratic (and somewhat Islamist) governments. Those who have firmly and in some cases eloquently denounced al-Qaeda and its ideology include the elected leaders of Libya, ­Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey—most of whom are Islamist in some sense. They have the most important form of ­power—legitimacy with their people—and when they declare al-Qaeda un-­Islamic and unrepresentative, it matters. Al-Qaeda is losing something much more important than the battle; it is losing the ­argument.