Terrorism at a moment of transition
July 12th, 2013
06:00 AM ET

Terrorism at a moment of transition

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the latest in a series of stories and opinion pieces previewing the upcoming Aspen Security Forum. Security Clearance is a media sponsor of the event which is taking place from July 17-20 in Aspen, Colorado. Follow the event on Twitter under @aspeninstitute and @natlsecuritycnn #AspenSecurity. John McLaughlin was a CIA officer for 32 years and served as deputy director and acting director from 2000-2004. He currently teaches at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

From John McLaughlin, Special for CNN

Terrorism experts inside and outside the government have been caught up in a debate about how close we may be to defeating al Qaeda and associated groups. As events have demonstrated so vividly in recent years, we are living in an era of continuous surprise, making this one of those questions that cannot be answered with confidence.

What can be said with absolute confidence is that today’s al Qaeda is fundamentally different from the one we knew for years. It has evolved from the hierarchical organization of September 2001 into what might be called a “network of networks.”

Interconnected, loosely-structured organizations are run by a series of al Qaeda affiliates scattered across the arc of South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Some declare fealty to Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, while others merely take inspiration from the legacy his organization represents.

All of these al Qaeda elements remain radical, anti-western, violent, and dangerous. But they are caught up in a debate over tactics, goals, and leadership that we always thought would come following bin Laden’s death.

So this is a highly fluid moment of transition for international terrorism – when we can confidently discern trends but cannot predict end states with any assurance.

Three major trends stand out:

First, the battlefield is undergoing the most significant changes in a dozen years. With the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq complete and its exit from Afghanistan underway, terrorists who choose to operate there will have more freedom of maneuver - while we and others opposing them will have to do so more remotely and with less granular data.

Apace with this in Iraq, several factors - Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's authoritarianism; Sunni attraction to the plight of brethren in neighboring Syria, and the hardening commitment to autonomy among Kurds have created opportunities for al Qaeda and raised anew questions about the country's long-term cohesiveness.

It was once the "worst case" to suggest that Syria and Iraq could each come apart. But with sectarian violence raging in Syria and centrifugal pressures in Iraq, this is no longer so hard to imagine. In that case, the map of the Middle East would have to be withdrawn. And this would occur in circumstances brought about in part by terrorist groups who would then have the means to influence the outcome.

A second major trend opening up opportunities for terrorists is the increasing turmoil in governance across the arc of South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Although many analysts two years ago saw the Arab Spring as a refutation of al Qaeda’s violent ideology, it is hard to portray recent events as anything other than a new world of opportunities for radical Islamists.

Syria is Exhibit A. It has become the primary engine driving the movement. It is a magnet for foreign fighters, now about 7% to 10% of the rebel force. They come from as far away as Britain and Bangladesh, as near as Iraq and Jordan, and from across North Africa.

When eventually the Syrian fighting ends, many of these experienced jihadists will filter back to homelands that are themselves in turmoil. They will find ample opportunities in countries where leaders are seeking to establish stable government (Egypt); trying to supplant tribal differences with a semblance of central authority (Libya); managing protest in the midst of democratic transition (Tunisia); or simply trying to ride out the storm (Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Algeria).

All of these conditions are especially pronounced in North Africa where the weakness of governments combines with geography to create some of the world’s least governed space.

Borders are hardly patrolled, governmental writ seldom extends beyond major urban centers, and the terrain is marked by long stretches of desert dotted with militant camps and centuries-old smuggling routes - now shared with terrorists and organized crime.

It is no accident that the two most significant terrorist attacks in the last six months occurred here: the assault on the U.S. base in Benghazi, Libya, and the attack on the In Amenas natural gas plant in Algeria.

Emblematic of the freedom that terrorists have here, the leader of the latter attack was able to use networks across the region to gather weapons and recruit fighters from Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, and Mauritania.

A third major trend has to do with the debate underway among terrorists over tactics, targets, and ways to correct past errors.

On targets, jihadists are now pulled in many directions. Many experts contend they are less capable of a major attack on the U.S. homeland. But given the steady stream of surprises they’ve sprung – ranging from the 2009 “underwear bomber” to the more recent idea of a surgically implanted explosive – it is hard to believe they’ve given up trying to surprise us with innovations designed to penetrate our defenses.

We especially should remain alert that some of the smaller groups could surprise us by pointing an attacker toward the United States, as Pakistan’s Tehrik e Taliban did in preparing Faizal Shazad for his attempted bombing of Times Square in 2010.

At the same time, many of the groups are becoming intrigued by the possibility of scoring gains against regional governments that are now struggling to gain or keep their balance – opportunities that did not exist at the time of the 9/11 attacks.

Equally important, jihadists are now learning from their mistakes, especially the reasons for their past rejection by populations where they temporarily gained sway.

Documents from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, discovered after French forces chased them from Mali, reveal awareness that they were too harsh on local inhabitants, especially women. They also recognized that they need to move more gradually and provide tangible services to populations – a practice that has contributed to the success of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

We are now seeing a similar awareness among jihadists in Syria, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen. If these “lessons learned” take hold and spread, it will become harder to separate terrorists from populations and root them out.

Taken together, these three trends are a cautionary tale for those seeking to gauge the future of the terrorist threat.

Al Qaeda today may be weakened, but its wounds are far from fatal. It is at a moment of transition, immersed in circumstances that could sow confusion and division in the movement or, more likely, extend its life and impart new momentum.

So if we are ever tempted to lower our guard in debating whether and when this war might end, we should take heed of these trends and of the wisdom J. R. R. Tolkien has Eowyn speak in “Lord of the Rings”: "It needs but one foe to breed a war, not two ..."

Filed under: Al Qaeda • AQAP • Aspen Security Forum • Hezbollah • Libya • Living With Terror • Mali • Opinion • Security Brief • Syria • Terrorism
soundoff (52 Responses)
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    October 17, 2014 at 3:15 am | Reply
  2. In home personal training

    I agree I think there tactics, goals, and leadership that we always thought would come following bin Laden’s death are different. I think we will be fighting this war for a long time.

    April 2, 2014 at 8:03 am | Reply
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    January 22, 2014 at 9:27 pm | Reply
  4. Алексей Просвет

    leader of a gang of terrorists killed http://aprosvet.blogspot.com/2013/09/V-Sirii-ubit-glava-terroristov.html

    September 22, 2013 at 5:52 pm | Reply
  5. Skorpio

    A long lasting global peace without terrorism, violence and discrimination is only achievable by a massive conversion of Muslims to Christianity...or to any other religion except Islam.

    August 25, 2013 at 10:16 am | Reply
  6. keith cossairt

    Invented by the CIA
    managed by the CIA
    that simple... dont complicate matters,
    the eater class wont understand.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:42 pm | Reply
    • jon


      July 15, 2013 at 9:09 pm | Reply
    • mirageseekr

      Agreed, those that think Im crazy please look into The Pentagon Papers, Operation Mockingbird, Nayirah and testimony, Gulf of Tonkin, Operation Northwoods. I could go on and on but that should give you an idea of what our little alphabet soup agencies like to do.

      November 18, 2013 at 6:24 pm | Reply
    • Realist

      Save me from the Boogeymen terrorists. Take my freedom take my money for security and grow our government beyond control......cause I am an American and I am scared...everyone wants to kill us cause were free....SAAAVE ME from the Terrorists....ahhhhhhhhh I am so scared. I am a woosey American

      CNN = fear Mongering. Fear Mongering = TERRORISM

      February 27, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Reply
  7. Skorpio

    ELIMINATING ISLAMIC CLERICS AND DEVOUT MUSLIMS, the world can lower 80% ALL terrorist attacks, violence and discrimination. That is what Mustafa Kemal (1881-1938 modern Turkey founder) did to transform Turkey into a secular state.

    July 15, 2013 at 9:14 am | Reply
    • John Bose

      By Paying attention to these cold blooded killer Muslims Terroist we should kill them all without any mercy

      August 6, 2013 at 1:15 am | Reply

    I don't think you people at CNN get it,all these bogas wars on christians and children in other countries ,has brought the wrath of the LORD down on america,you've made a fortune,supporting these wars,IF you keep it up, the LORDS WRATH will come down on america and HE will destroy this country and every body in it ,AND THAT INCLUDES YOU,he has warned everyone NOT TO HARM HIS LITTLE ONES,DO americans think thats a joke? cause HE DOEN'T TELL JOKES,IF the LORD says I will destroy you if you don't stop,DO YOU WANT TO PLAY RUSSIAN ROULETTE WITH THAT????

    July 14, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Reply
    • Horso

      I really think you are an idiot. Where was god at during the Holocaust.

      July 21, 2013 at 10:25 pm | Reply
  9. George Patton

    how close we are defeating al Qaeda???? shouldn't we ask how close we are defeating Islam !!!

    July 13, 2013 at 8:27 pm | Reply

      GEORGE,go back to the 1980's,WHO WAS al-queda ,THE US STATE DEPT., your talking about the us government here,DOD,they run AL-QUEDA and always have,its a bogas war to suck your pockets dry,and so far the american people have fallen for it ,hook ,line ,and sinker.....................

      July 14, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Reply
    • mirageseekr

      George, go hide in your closet if your that afraid of the "terrorists" The war on terror was created as a way to keep us perpetual war with no true enemy. It is used to bleed the taxpayers of money that flows to companies like Halliburton, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and others. Then look who has their greedy little hands all over this money and you start seeing names like Dick Cheney, Michael Chertoff and other like minded slime. Some phrases people have forgotten about "We have nothing to fear except fear itself" and "give me liberty or give me death" The alphabet soup agencies cover for the corporations while the government strips us of our rights with things they ironically like to name "the patriot act" Stop being a naive flag waver. People pose a threat not religions and right now the threat is coming from within.

      November 18, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Reply
      • Puck head

        You have it right, in that Eisenhower kept reminding us to beware of the Military Industrial Complex. Our Foreign Policy is for perpetual war. If we wanted to we end this and be done with it. The defense contractors are pulling the purse strings.

        December 21, 2013 at 7:20 pm |
  10. ron noblet

    The part on lessions learned Is telling. Translated to cartels in Mexico and the US allows us to see that once the cartels learn to deliver goods and services, the populations in which they are inbeded will ignore or protect them.

    July 13, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Reply
    • mariedevine

      Correction : Divine-Way.com shows the deception and take over of America.

      July 15, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Reply
  11. lance

    nuke all big nosed arab camel fornicators !

    July 13, 2013 at 10:26 am | Reply
    • superbole

      Rephrase: "Is there any use of pre-emptive strikes to neutralize the most dangerous terrorist cells?"

      Answer: We've tried that with varying degrees of success. We've managed to wipe out some leaders, but in some cases, we've also created more extremists from accidental death and other collateral damage. Time to do something else.

      July 13, 2013 at 1:43 pm | Reply
  12. travis

    I didnt read your hole article but i have the anwere to this – sherbet ice cream sounds funny rt but thats the lead – sherbet haing cfc and bht from biological containers that mrsy thinks he ownes every bodies sherbet and girls modeling or eating it and thats there weapon of banking now your eating my lic sherbert ice cream from the confession of syrian missing or stolen biological containers -sounds inocent enogh rt but kidnapping grace park to a cop tv show to say ha therws what you cant have -her- and look shes eating sherbet -my sherbert and you cant have her because the world has to have your gov confesion from obam that ya ya thats rt you stole sherbert and shes the relgious commercial for all forgivness

    July 12, 2013 at 5:50 pm | Reply
    • cat

      Should we take you seriously when you can't spell answer right?

      July 13, 2013 at 3:54 am | Reply
    • Kamran Khan

      Can you put away your bong pipe and make some sense?

      February 26, 2014 at 1:06 pm | Reply
  13. saeed

    soon all the west is going to get killed and genocidedet then the Islamic world is going to repopulate the western world with its own people one nuke and USA Britain and Australia are dust in a sea of flames this article is written by a Irish potato farmer from Dublin.

    July 12, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Reply
    • saeed's nemesis

      Saeed you smell like crap man-just wanted to let you know.

      July 12, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Reply
    • Portland tony

      It's obvious you have no concept of history of the rise of terrorism and anarchism throughout history. It's only the poor, the uneducated, the disenfranchised who have nothing to lose.....mostly it's those who have lost everything who strike out against the establishment, You will notice that many from Muslim dominated countries fall into these radical groups today. Using radical jihadist Muslim philosophy as a unifying force to justify their "revolution" many try to give credence to their antisocial behavior. History has shown that religion is a good catalyst in bringing the disenfranchised together. Today it's the radical Muslim....tomorrow, who knows?

      July 12, 2013 at 5:48 pm | Reply
      • markjuliansmith

        "It's only the poor, the uneducated, the disenfranchised who have nothing to lose.."

        Osama bin Laden He was born in the bin Laden family to billionaire Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden in Saudi Arabia. He studied there in college until 1979.

        It would pay you top examine the source of the recruits to the SS and supporters of the Nazi party before making such a fallacious broadly accepted lie.

        Given if you say was true the terror has to be supported by a cultural ethical construct. ie Other are less, 'evil', 'deaf dumb and blind', cannot be convinced even when confronted with the 'truth' and justifiably destined for 'grievous harm' and or 'severest penalty'.

        Islam construct of Other as the Nazi the exact same construct equals terror.

        July 13, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
      • Portland tony

        The bin Ladens and Hitlers of the world are not the ones who are blowing themselves up or fighting Jihads across the Middle East and elsewhere. They are not the Saudi princes financing the Sunni uprisings in Syria and Iraq. It's those disenfranchised thousands who ignorantly follow the false teaching of these prophets of a radical philosophy .

        July 14, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
    • S

      Wake me up when that happens.

      July 13, 2013 at 4:19 am | Reply
  14. markjuliansmith

    "When eventually the Syrian fighting ends, many of these experienced jihadists will filter back to homelands that are themselves in turmoil.

    If these “lessons learned” take hold and spread, it will become harder to separate terrorists from populations and root them out.

    .. one of those questions that cannot be answered with confidence."

    There has been a significant change from my perspective in moving away from dealing with the symptoms al Qaeda, Mahdi, .... Muslim Brotherhood,... terror and subjugation of women to actual cause.

    It is a position which accepts globalisation and cultural foundation codex (genetic and textual authority – and associated messianic templates) are the cause and unless public policy makers start being 'honest' and commence setting up political construct and will to change significantly the public policy direction away from cultural relativist ethical nihilist multiculturalism, inclusive of Freedom of Religion to inform each new generation as to the nature of Other and women, humanity are set for 'major schism'. In fact it has started; it started in the seventh century.

    The significant change has come in the recent stated views of two Western leaders regards ‘Religion’ as a driver of ‘major schism’ rather than a rote proclamation such as David Cameron – “Islam Is Peaceful and Compatible with Democracy” and Hillary Clinton “The suggestion that faithful Muslims cannot thrive in a democracy is insulting, dangerous and wrong,”.

    Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Libya, Turkey, Iran, London, Boston, Bali, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Sudan, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia,... appear to rationally determine David Cameron and Hillary Clintons views as so false as to be incredulous.

    But truth as they say will out. Obama made I believe two interconnecting statements and he had to make the first to make the second.


    “UNITED States’ President, Barrack Obama, on Saturday, linked growing terrorism in Africa to bad governance but insisted that, “in the case of the Boko Haram sect, there is (also) the religious rationale for what they are doing.”

    Tony Blair’s Foundation came out previous to Obama’s statements regards the potential divineness of religion:

    Tony Blair: Woolwich attack shows there is a problem 'within Islam' The Telegraph 4/6/2013:

    The significance of the Blair statement is the use of the word 'spectrum' which if Blair and public policy makers he is trying to influence were 'honest about it' is the same as 'consistent Muslim behavioural variance'.

    Thought-Stoppers for Policy-Makers | Tony Blair Faith Foundation:
    "..but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts". I doubt that he was referring to writing on religion, though this might warrant his strictures today."

    This is pointing out words and sentences in foundation texts are not written for no purpose: Plato agreed with this position.

    Cultural Foundation textual authority = Ethic = Ideas = Motivation = Action for and against Other. Change the Cultural Foundation textual authority or nothing changes – there is simply a revolving around the median cultural ethic in time and space and as Tony Blair points out this means Muslims cultural behavioural variance consistently and necessarily informs terror and subjugation of Other –‘major schism’.

    The above means as we accept readily for the secular a genocide construct of Other inevitably given political space to flourish leads to exactly that be it religious or secular.

    More and more in the West we are hearing "This is 2013, this sort of behaviour is not acceptable in our society," Supt Lennon said. "People know what's going on but they won't come forward."

    Well it is because of the cultural behavioural variance such behaviour is ‘a part of our society’ and yours.

    Humanity either forces change to the Islamic foundation codex which creates the consistent cultural variance inclusive of Terror against Other with subjugation of women thrown in despite the majority of Muslims being so called liberal moderates or major schism and terror continues.

    al Qaeda is simply a historic pimple caused by the same pathology Islam’s construct of Other and women.

    The West must act before we to are subject to exactly the fear as those in Muslim dominated space because of what multiculturalism as it is currently constructed enables to grow in our societies unchecked.
    “Now it’s fear and growing extremism that are making parents keep children at home.”

    July 12, 2013 at 11:36 am | Reply
    • Kamran Khan

      Who the hell is gonna read that long? Not me for sure.

      February 26, 2014 at 1:09 pm | Reply
  15. Towel Heads

    Towel Heads is what Towel Heads do.

    July 12, 2013 at 11:26 am | Reply
    • BIG SHIZ

      And a racist peace of sh it is a racist peace of sh it.

      July 12, 2013 at 11:58 am | Reply
      • California

        Rioters (Pro-Trayvon rioters) are just that Pieces of chit.

        July 16, 2013 at 2:04 pm |

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