On February 23, four experts confronted the shifting structure, networks, strategies, and goals of al Qaeda during a panel discussion hosted by the Center on Law and Security. CLS fellows Peter Bergen, who is also a terrorism analyst for CNN and Roger Cressey, a partner at Good Harbor Consulting, were joined by Thomas Hegghammer, a member of Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study and Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism analyst for NBC News.

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“Al Qaeda’s strategy has been a complete and total failure,” said Bergen, the night’s first speaker. Bergen outlined the strategic problems on the part of al Qaeda, including the practice of killing Muslim civilians. Using reports from Arab media sources, a study by the Combating Terrorism Center of the United States' Military Academy found that, between 2006 and 2008, 98 percent of those killed as a result of al Qaeda operations were Muslim. “For a group whose stated aim is the defense of Muslims, this is a pretty sorry record,” said Bergen.

Bergen and Kohlmann agreed that al Qaeda is not currently equipped to engineer a large-scale terrorist attack on the United States. But, Kohlmann said, the threat from al Qaeda is now spread across many different agents and allies, making smaller and mid-sized attacks harder to anticipate. “We’re dealing with an FBI and law enforcement and intelligence agencies which are geared to a threat which is recruited supposedly out of mosques or community centers or within known stereotypical al Qaeda networks,” Kohlmann said. “That’s not how it happens anymore. The realization has really been very recent, and it’s been, unfortunately, a little bit too little too late.”

Although the threat of actors outside of the central al Qaeda network is harder to confront, Cressey said al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is of little strategic threat. AQAP has been most active in Saudi Arabia and Yemen and has claimed responsibility for the December 25, 2009 attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 near Detroit. Cressey said their threat is diminished in part because they have gained the attention of the Western world and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, and will now be watched closely. Hegghammer added that although they are now internationally known, AQAP is a small operation that likely used most of it resources on the bombing attempt in December. “We shouldn’t overstate the threat from AQAP,” Hegghammer said, “and we certainly shouldn’t divert too many resources from what is the main threats, which are Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

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Posted March 9, 2010