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May: Al-Qaida is still a threat to U.S. and its allies

A Yemeni soldier inspects a car at a

A Yemeni soldier inspects a car at a checkpoint on a street leading to the U.S. embassy in Sanaa, Yemen. Security forces closed access roads, put up extra blast walls and beef up patrols near some of the 21 U.S. diplomatic missions in the Muslim world that Washington ordered closed for the weekend over a "significant threat" of an al-Qaida attack. (Aug. 4, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

By all accounts, the attack was planned with care and executed with precision. At two notorious Iraqi prisons, Abu Ghraib and Taji, al-Qaida combatants last month used mortars, small arms, suicide bombers and assault forces to free 400 prisoners, including several who had been on death row. Al-Qaida spokesmen hailed those released as "mujahedeen," holy warriors who will rejoin the jihad on battlefields throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Soon after, we were seeing headlines such as this: "Al-Qaida Is Back" Where had al-Qaida gone? Dig deep in the memory hole -- all the way to last summer. At the prestigious Aspen Security Forum, Peter Bergen, CNN's national-security analyst and a director at the New America Foundation, gave a talk titled "Time to Declare Victory: Al-Qaida Is Defeated." Retired Lt. Col. Thomas Lynch III, a distinguished research fellow at the National Defense University, was writing and speaking widely on the same theme. And President Obama's re-election campaign was making similar claims, e.g. "the tide of war is receding," "Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive." Mitt Romney hardly attempted to rebut the thesis.

I don't like to say "I told you so" -- oh, whom am I kidding? Of course I do. But in this instance, there is more than ample justification. I'm president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where scholars, in particular Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, have argued consistently and forcefully, based on solid evidence, that the May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, followed by the elimination of other al-Qaida leaders, did not, by any stretch of the imagination, mean the demise of al-Qaida.

Instead, it led al-Qaida to adapt, evolve and morph. On July 18, Joscelyn testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, attempting to make clear to members of Congress that al-Qaida has become "a global international terrorist network ... that, despite setbacks, contests for territory abroad and still poses a threat to U.S. interests both overseas and at home." The nodes of al-Qaida's network are affiliates that pledge "bayat," or unswerving allegiance, while retaining substantial operational autonomy. Nine years ago, Jonathan Schanzer of the foundation wrote a book called "Al-Qaida's Armies" predicting that such al-Qaida "affiliates, in the Arab world and beyond, represent the next generation of the global terrorist threat."

Since the waving of the "mission accomplished" banner last summer, al-Qaida affiliates have killed an American ambassador in Libya, attacked a U.S. diplomatic compound in Yemen, and hoisted their flag above the U.S. embassy in Cairo. They have taken the lead in the rebellion against the Assad dynasty in Syria. They have fought an American-backed government in Yemen, and conquered much of Mali until French troops intervened. They continue to slaughter Christians in Nigeria -- more than a thousand last year. They have regenerated in Iraq since the departure of American troops, killing 700 people in July alone. They remain undefeated in Afghanistan and Pakistan, poised for the opportunity further American troop withdrawals will present.

Last week, they attacked Turkish diplomats in Somalia.

Joscelyn and Roggio have been making another argument that has challenged the conventional wisdom: They have maintained that al-Qaida has long had a working relationship with Iran's rulers. Two years ago, the U.S. government formally affirmed that hypothesis, yet now as then, many Iran experts deny the links, arguing that there is no way that Sunni al-Qaida and Shia Iran could collaborate.

What those experts fail to grasp is that Iran's rulers and al-Qaida's commanders, despite very real theological disagreements and differing strategic interests -- indeed, they are literally at each other's throats in Syria -- are united in their commitment to Islamic supremacy and domination. Their shared goal is a global revolution leading to the submission of those they regard as "enemies of God." America and Israel top both their lists.

This worldview is difficult for Westerners to take seriously. Surely, there must be a less medieval explanation -- perhaps grievances that can be addressed and fears that can be assuaged. But the conflict is deeper and more complex. Until that is understood, the U.S. and its allies cannot possibly devise a coherent strategic response -- which is why 34 years after Iran's revolution and 12 years after 9/11 we still don't have one. That is another point that Joscelyn and Roggio have long been making, and which too many in the government and the foreign policy community have been either unable or unwilling to grasp.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.