“Despite nearly a decade of war, al Qaeda is stronger today than when it carried out the 9/11 attacks.” So begins Leah Farrall’s fascinating article in a recent edition of Foreign Affairs. Farrall is former Senior Counterterrorism Intelligence Analyst with the Australian Federal Police, and is completing her PhD thesis on al Qaeda and militant Islam.
She begins her analysis with a brief history of the organization, stating that Osama bin Laden has sought for 20 years to unify other militant Islamist groups under his leadership. In the mid-1990s, he attempted to build an “Islamic Army” in Sudan but was expelled by that country. He then declared war on the United States, but failed to rally significant support.
In 2001 he merged with Egyptian Islamic Jihad, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, now his second-in-command. His group grew to a core of 200 people, a 122-person martyrdom brigade, and several dozen foot soldiers. He launched the 9/11 attacks in an attempt to incite armed retaliation by the U.S. which would unify Islamist militants under his leadership.
Our military response in Afghanistan forced bin Laden to flee to Pakistan and has severely weakened his organization there. But he activated a branch of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), charged with carrying out attacks against America. A second group was created in Iraq (AQI) to undermine democracy there. A third branch was created in the “Maghreb,” the western region of North Africa which includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania. And the organization works with the Abdullah Azzam Brigades in Lebanon.
As a result, al Qaeda has secured greater reach than ever before in its history. FBI Director Robert Mueller recently told a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, “Despite the significant counterterrorism pressure abroad, al Qaeda continues to be committed to high-profile attacks directed at the West, including plans against Europe as well as the homeland.”
These attacks will be smaller in scale and easier to execute. Al Qaeda understands, according to Mueller, that “launching a large attack, perhaps a more devastating attack, is not worth the additional effort when you can get substantial coverage and impact with smaller attacks.”
According to Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, 2010 brought the largest number and fastest pace of attempted attacks since September 11. With the 10-year anniversary of 9-11 approaching, security officials are warning that more attacks are on the way.
When our enemy is decentralized and mobile, with thousands of embittered youth to call into battle, what is our path to victory? We can strengthen security at home, with full-body scanners and heightened border patrols. We can continue to attack al Qaeda wherever we find it. But this battle is intellectual and spiritual before it is technological and military in nature.
Consider the intellectual front. The good news is that the Arab world is witnessing a pro-democracy movement of unprecedented scope. Leon Wieseltier, writing in the March 24, 2011 issue of The New Republic, notes: “One of the most striking features of the democratic revolts has been the absence from them of any significant anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Israeli expressions.” This revolution may further marginalize radical Islamists across the Arab world.
Or it may not. The bad news is that upcoming Egyptian elections will likely provide the Muslim Brotherhood a significant seat at the leadership table; during my recent trip to Israel I witnessed their leaders’ skepticism regarding the Brotherhood’s democratic claims. Unrest in Yemen threatens to unseat President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a significant partner with the West in the fight against AQAP. And fighting to topple Muammar Gaddafi may strengthen al Qaeda’s network there.
So the spiritual front remains critical to this global struggle. More Muslims are coming to Christ than ever before in Islamic history, many after seeing visions and dreams of Jesus. During my trip to Bangladesh last January I met many new Christians who had experienced such miracles. I am praying every day for a spiritual awakening to sweep the Middle East. I am interceding for believers there, many of whom face horrific persecution for their courageous faith. And I am asking Christians wherever I speak to join me in this spiritual battle.
This article originally appeared in the Associated Baptist Press