WASHINGTON — With Al-Qaeda’s core command weakened and vulnerable, US experts say it’s time to ask how and when to declare victory over the group founded by Osama bin Laden in 1988.
His killing in a raid by US special forces in Pakistan in May, followed by the August death of number two Atiyah abd al-Rahman in a US drone strike, has whittled down the network’s leadership ranks.
Just two men are left to be eliminated from Al Qaeda’s central command, the experts say: current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and senior militant Abu Yahya Al Libi.
“That’s basically it. If they are killed, it’s as close to over as it can ever be,” said Brian Fishman of the New America Foundation and the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
“Al-Qaeda will never completely disappear,” Fishman pointed out.
“There is always going to be somebody who is going to pick up a gun or try to build an IED in the name of Al Qaeda,” he said.
“We’ll have to learn to live with it, just like in the US we live with the fact that every once and a while a guy kills a police officer or a black and call himself a neo-Nazi.”
Fishman predicted the group feared the world over in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people on US soil will become a network of “lone wolves” — meaning the wider group has failed.
Andrew Exum, who led a platoon of Army Rangers in Iraq and Afghanistan, predicted Al Qaeda could disappear within the next year or 18 months.
“They already are mortally wounded — the death of Al Zawahiri would have a devastating effect,” added Exum, of the Center for a New American Security.
The stakes are high for Washington, which has created a massive — and costly — anti-terrorism and national security apparatus since 9/11 that employs thousands of civilians and military officers.
While the decline of the threat posed by Al-Qaeda could lead to some budget reductions, no US official is likely to risk officially declaring victory over the much reviled group.
On Thursday, the White House laid out a plan to implement a government strategy to combat homegrown domestic terrorism and any attempts by Al-Qaeda to seek to radicalize American Muslims.
“There will be no ‘We won’ moment,” said Marc Sageman, a former CIA operations officer in Pakistan.
“It will take time, we will talk about it less, the budget will decrease.”
He noted that thousands of civilian contractors working in counterterrorism operations have secret clearance to classified defense information, and predicted many would not have it renewed after its five-year limit.
If Zawahiri, who took the helm of Al Qaeda after bin Laden’s death, were killed along with number two Libi, the group would have no other figure with the same legitimacy and prestige to replace them, experts said.
“Perhaps some small-scale commanders will rise up, but we already know they won’t have the required stature,” Sageman said. “Even Libi is a borderline replacement. He could have a legitimacy problem.”
But the experts cautioned that affiliated groups, such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — led by US-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki until his death in September — and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb will likely survive long after and continue to present a significant threat.
Still, the fight against terror has cost America enough — both in blood and money — that it may be time to shift gears.
“There will be future attacks in the US, and in France, and in the UK,” said Fishman, adding: “We can live with it. But we can’t allow the entire US foreign policy to be held hostage by that threat."