Eight years after the September 11 attacks -- years that have seen many precious lives lost and an overwhelming expenditure of effort and money -- the battle against al Qaeda still continues, and it is still not clear whether America is winning or not. As I give talks on this topic to everyone from undergraduate students to counterterrorism practitioners to community groups, I am invariably asked whether there is a winner in the war on terrorism. Questioners are almost always dissatisfied with my answer: "It depends."
But this is the only answer I can give, because the terms of the question are out of date. If you're asking whether the United States has defeated al Qaeda, you also have to ask: Which al Qaeda are we talking about? The senior leaders operating somewhere in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan? The al Qaeda franchises around the world, most notably in Iraq, Algeria, and Yemen? Or the global ideological following, sparked by al Qaeda, calling itself al Qaeda, but not technically affiliated with al Qaeda? If you ask about winning, you have to also ask whether winning means killing the organization or just handicapping it. Does it refer to destroying al Qaeda's military capabilities, or to mitigating al Qaeda's ability to win hearts and minds around the world?
As these questions suggest, over the last eight years al Qaeda has undergone a metamorphosis. It has transformed from a global terrorist group into a global terrorist movement, one with its own founding fathers, well-codified doctrine, substantial and accessible corpus of literature, and deep bench of young, bright, and ambitious commanders. Attacks still matter to them, but in an era of increased counterterrorism pressure, al Qaeda is beginning to realize that it is a lot more effective at being a movement, an ideology, even a worldview. It is starting to see that terrorism is only one of many tools in its arsenal and that changing minds matters more than changing policies.
In other words, the al Qaeda that we are fighting in 2009 is not the same al Qaeda that we went to war with in 2001. Unfortunately, however, our own mindset has remained mostly unchanged.
Much of al Qaeda's evolution over the last eight years is embodied in one man, Sheikh Abu Yahya al-Libi, director of al Qaeda's jurisprudence committee and a likely successor to Osama bin Laden. Young, media-savvy, ideologically extreme, and masterful at justifying savage acts of terrorism with esoteric religious arguments, Abu Yahya offers the global al Qaeda movement everything that its old guard cannot.
Details about Abu Yahya's life are sparse, but a basic timeline can be pieced together from al Qaeda's published interviews with him as well as the published insights offered by his current and former colleagues. Growing up in Libya, Abu Yahya (whose real name is Muhammad Hasan Qaid but who is also known as Yunus al-Sahrawi) was a bright and affable young man. For at least a period of time, he attended Sebha University in Libya, majoring in chemistry. At some point during the late 1980s or in 1990, Abu Yahya left his home country and traveled to Afghanistan, where he settled in Logar province. During that time, he joined the nascent Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a faction of Libyans who had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan and were hellbent on violently overthrowing Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. Abu Yahya's older brother was a senior LIFG leader.