Assumptions about al Qaeda have a bad tendency to turn out wrong. Many U.S. security analysts underestimated the group before the September 11 attacks, and then, not surprisingly, perhaps overestimated it after 9/11. In recent years, inside and outside the U.S. government, there was a new reigning assumption about al Qaeda -- that the appeal of its Salafi-jihadi ideology would decline as its ability to conduct terrorist attacks was eroded by intelligence, law enforcement, and military operations. Amid what appeared to be a building backlash against bin Laden's outfit among Muslims worldwide -- seen most vividly in the Sunni rebellion in Iraq and the denunciation of al Qaeda by high-profile former Salafist ideologues such as Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, aka Dr. Fadl -- the assumption that al Qaeda was growing both operationally weak and ideologically moribund seemed sound.
It now seems that this assumption may be significantly wrong. In a recent closed session of international intelligence and counterterrorism officials, a very high-ranking U.S. intelligence officer provided a simple, counterintuitive observation. Bin Laden may now be making infrequent filmed statements instead of planning and executing attacks, this official said, but those statements and the ideology behind them have grown in importance. The U.S. intelligence community, we were told, is starting to see this ideological threat as a greater danger to U.S. interests than actual al Qaeda-trained killers.
If true, this thesis renders moot a rather unseemly debate that continues to rage within the counterterrorism community. On one side is Marc Sageman, a scholar at the New York City Police Department and a former CIA psychiatrist, and on the other, Bruce Hoffman, a professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. These two, and their followers, came to theoretical blows last year over their assessments of the state of al Qaeda. Sageman argues that the phenomenon of "leaderless jihad" -- wherein individuals and groups become radicalized and commit terrorism with no al Qaeda guidance at all -- has supplanted the relevance of the group itself. Hoffman argues, instead, that bin Laden and company still pose the gravest of threats, that the operational core of al Qaeda retains high levels of command and control, and that grass-roots terrorism, or leaderless jihad, is but a myth.
It now seems that both were mistaken. Open-source information, along with the U.S. intelligence community's recent assessment, paints a different picture: It is one of al Qaeda as operationally degraded but ideologically ascendant, with "al Qaeda Central" continuing to exercise a significant degree of control over the shaping and dissemination of its Salafi-jihadi message and with the coordinated acts of violence against civilians that is does manage to carry out continuing to play an important role. Al Qaeda does not possess the organizational strength it had eight or 10 years ago, but al Qaeda's ideology is not waning among the young and extreme. On the contrary, its "propaganda by the deed" continues to inspire new recruits and terrorist attacks, particularly outside the Arab world.
Recent nongovernmental data support this view of al Qaeda. In 2008, Salafi terrorism of the sort that al Qaeda inspires and directs reared its head thousands of miles from Iraq and Israel, in places such as the Philippines, Russia, Somalia, and Pakistan. According to figures reported by one U.S. think tank, the annual number of Islamist terrorist attacks tripled between 2004 and 2008, to nearly 600 incidents. Indeed, if attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Israel are removed from the total, the trend over the same four-year period is even more startling, showing a quadrupling of Salafi-inspired attacks. And if you go back even further -- back before 9/11, the Bush presidency, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- the picture is shocking: a tenfold increase in annual terrorist attacks over the past decade.