Bruce Hoffman, a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, is the author of "Inside Terrorism." He is also a senior fellow at the U.S. Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center and a senior adviser to SITE Intelligence Group, a private security consulting firm.
Bruce Hoffman says al Qaeda is most dangerous when it has a sanctuary from which to operate.
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The new fashion in Washington is optimism -- at least so far as al Qaeda is concerned. In recent months, a succession of senior administration officials have trumpeted if not quite the end of al Qaeda at least the beginning of its end.
CIA Director Michael Hayden ticked off a list of indicators last May that portended al Qaeda's demise: "Near strategic defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq. Near strategic defeat for al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Significant setbacks for al Qaeda globally . . . as a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of Islam."
Much as Mark Twain famously remarked that, "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated," al Qaeda's obituary has also been written often since September 11, 2001. Both the July 7, 2005 suicide attacks in London, England, and the foiled 2006 plot to bomb American and Canadian passenger aircraft departing from London are examples why these eulogies are premature.
Questions about al Qaeda's longevity, however, have recently been invigorated because of its repudiation by some of the movement's leading Islamic ideologues. Tangible manifestations of these denunciations have appeared in the Sunni tribes "awakening" in Iraq; protests against suicide bombings by North African Muslims; and, public opinion polls across the Muslim world.
While the latest polling results and defections of leading jihadi ideologues admittedly are a major blow to al Qaeda, neither by any means constitutes a knockout punch.
Further, as welcome as the declines in mainstream Muslim opinion may be, there still remains a solid, hard-core base of support for al Qaeda that the movement still effectively plays to. Appealing to this hard-core that is al Qaeda's traditional political base is arguably today its most important priority.
Only when this core erodes can the beginning of al Qaeda's end be confidently proclaimed. Al Qaeda's efforts to preserve this base are likely behind the dramatic upsurge in al Qaeda videotapes and audiotapes released in the past 2½ years.
Moreover, other terrorist organizations have soldiered on for decades despite declining popular support and disavowals from leading ideologues. The Red Army Faction (RAF or "Baader-Meinhof Gang") in West Germany enjoyed miniscule popular support and was widely condemned and disparaged by that country's intelligentsia. It never numbered more then two dozen terrorists.
Yet, between 1968 and 1996, the RAF imposed a reign of terror on West Germany completely divorced from their small size, limited public support, and popular disparagement. When the RAF finally collapsed it was because of the loss of their sanctuary in East Germany.
Al Qaeda, of course, has been able resuscitate itself and revive its fortunes precisely because of the acquisition of a sanctuary in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. In fact, virtually every major al Qaeda attack or plot of the past four years -- including the July 7 bombings and the 2006 airline plot -- has emanated from the region.
For al Qaeda, its own fantasies and unbridled hubris coupled with its self-proclaimed, divinely ordained mission strengthen internal morale, resilience, and implacability in the face of overwhelming odds.
Having embarked on this path and been enmeshed in this struggle for two decades, al Qaeda will not easily be deflected. Diminishing polling figures and the vicissitudes of popular thinking will likely not matter to al Qaeda, given its self-appointed transcendental mission.
Terrorists compulsively drink deeply from the well of their own propaganda. They are: convinced of the moral certainty of their cause and the inevitably of their triumph. Al Qaeda doubtless continues to pin its hopes and faith on some new, spectacular terrorist attack that will firmly redirect it back onto an upward trajectory.
In a year marking both the movement's 20th anniversary and perhaps the most important American presidential race in recent decades, it would be rash to discount the threat that even a weakened, diminished al Qaeda still poses. It is exactly when we are lulled into complacency and our defenses are down that al Qaeda will strike.
If the September 11 attacks have taught us anything, it is that al Qaeda is most dangerous when it has a sanctuary from which to operate. Accordingly, the highest priority for the next American presidential administration must be to refocus our and our allies' attention on Afghanistan and Pakistan, where al Qaeda began to collapse after 2001 but has now regrouped.
This will require recognizing that al Qaeda cannot be defeated by military means alone. Success will require a dual strategy of systematically destroying and weakening enemy capabilities -- continuing to kill and capture al Qaeda leaders -- along with breaking the cycle of terrorist recruitment among radicalized bunches of guys.
Only by destroying the organization's leadership and disrupting the continued resonance of its radical message can al Qaeda be defeated.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.