Al-Qaida is weak, but one way it could resuscitate itself is through the Syria conflict, CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen said during the Distinguished Speaker Series event presented by the USC National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) last month.
Housed within the USC Price School of Public Policy and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, CREATE was established in 2004 with funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to prioritize countermeasures to terrorism, compute relative risks of potential terrorist events and estimate societal consequences of terrorism.
“Peter Bergen is the quintessential terrorism analyst,” said CREATE Associate Director Erroll Southers, who coordinates the series. “His candid assessments contribute to the scholarship of our discipline. Ahead of the curve in his research and insight, Bergen has lectured for every session of the Executive Program in Counter-Terrorism. We were delighted to feature him this year as our Distinguished Speaker.”
Bergen said Syria is a prime conflict for al-Qaida groups to thrive, being in the heart of the Arab world and under the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. However, Bergen is not convinced al-Qaida will take advantage of the opportunity because he expects the terrorist group will default to its normal method of operation, which is to impose Taliban-style rule that will alienate the population.
Bergen’s speech focused on the status of al-Qaida, where we stand on the domestic terrorism front and how we’ve done as a nation against this threat.
“I think we’ve done very well,” Bergen said. “If we had this conversation in 2003, you would have expected some large scale attack on the mainland, perhaps with weapons of mass destruction. That hasn’t happened. The fact is we have applied enormous amounts of pressure to al-Qaida. When you think about what 9/11 was intended to do, Osama bin Laden wanted to apply so much pressure to the United States by an attack that killed a lot of Americans, that we would withdraw from the Middle East.”
In 1997, Bergen produced the first television interview with bin Laden for CNN. In the course of the interview, bin Laden said the United States was a paper tiger as weak as the former Soviet Union, citing how the United States had pulled out of Vietnam in the ’70s, Beirut in 1983 and Somalia after the Black Hawk Down incident in 1993.
Rather than pull out of the Middle East following 9/11, the United States is more engaged in the area than ever before. Bin Laden’s strategy was not achieved, and as a result of the attacks, al-Qaida lost the best base it ever had in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Al-Qaida hasn’t conducted a successful attack in the United States since 9/11 or in the west since the London attacks in 2005. It’s a record of failure that Bergen said bin Laden understood in his final years.
Furthermore, the United States has taken a hammer to al-Qaida. According to the New America Foundation, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., for which Bergen is director of the National Securities Study Program, drone strikes have killed 30 leading members of al-Qaida in Pakistan since 2008 and 37 in Yemen.
“This is an organization that is running out of leaders,” Bergen said. “And this is an organization that is not capable of implementing the strategy that it would like to do, which is to attack the west and change the Middle East so you can have Taliban-style regimes across the region.”
Bergen said al-Qaida has defaulted to two basic tactics, one to encourage lone-wolf attacks in the west and the other to take advantage of the Arab Spring.
The Boston attacks were an unfortunate example of the former, but Bergen was encouraged by the U.S. reaction and the resilient response of the people.
“A Boston where four people are killed is a tragedy but not a catastrophe,” Bergen said. “If that’s what al-Qaida-inspired individuals are left able to do in the United States, I think that’s not bad given where we were in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, thinking that it was going to be one of a series of catastrophic attacks.”
Bergen, author of the 2012 book Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad, thought the death of bin Laden was an important event for the restoration of American national honor and for families of the victims of 9/11.
In conclusion, he said he hoped the death of bin Laden would help the country get away from the authorization for military force that Congress gave the Oval Office after 9/11, a conversation recently begun by President Barack Obama.
“Never in our history have we said we’re just going to be at war forever,” Bergen said. “I think it’s fundamentally an un-American concept. … We don’t need to protect ourselves by being in a state of permanent war.”