Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

From Benghazi to Boston: The state of the jihad

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
updated 10:15 AM EDT, Tue July 16, 2013
Vice President Joe Biden, left, President Barack Obama, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, second from right, watch the mission to capture Osama bin Laden from the Situation Room in the White House on May 1, 2011. Click through to see reactions from around the world following the death of the al Qaeda leader. Vice President Joe Biden, left, President Barack Obama, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, second from right, watch the mission to capture Osama bin Laden from the Situation Room in the White House on May 1, 2011. Click through to see reactions from around the world following the death of the al Qaeda leader.
HIDE CAPTION
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peter Bergen: Benghazi and Boston don't alter reality about jihad
  • He says al Qaeda central is in trouble and that it offers no solutions to regional problems
  • Bergen says some affiliates of al Qaeda show life but don't pose major threat yet to West

Editor's note: This is one 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 to 20 in Aspen, Colorado. Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden, from 9/11 to Abbottabad."

(CNN) -- Every July in the lush, green mountains of Aspen, Colorado, many of the top present and former U.S. national security officials and other experts gather to discuss how the war against al Qaeda and its allies is going.

Ahead of last year's Aspen conference, I wrote a piece for CNN provocatively titled "Time to declare victory: Al Qaeda is defeated." And I then spoke on a panel at Aspen where I tried to make the case for this position.

I'm not sure too many of the folks in Aspen were convinced. (If they had been, it would hardly seem necessary to travel back to Aspen again this year!)

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

Since last year's Aspen conference, a group of men only very loosely aligned with al Qaeda attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing four U.S. diplomats and CIA contractors.

And in April, the Tsarnaev brothers whose family originated in the Caucasus -- one an American citizen and the other a US resident -- were accused of detonating pressure-cooker bombs in Boston that were based on a design that al Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate had widely distributed on the Internet.

The bombing killed three and wounded more than 250 and brought ordinary life to a screeching halt in one of the nation's largest cities.

Certainly the attacks in Libya and Boston were victories for "Binladenism," the ideological movement that al Qaeda has spawned.

Al Qaeda mag. praises Boston bombings

Indeed, the New Mexico-born cleric Anwar Awlaki who was a leader of al-Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate before he was killed in a US drone strike in 2011, was influential not only on the Tsarnaev brothers who possessed some of his writings but also on 22 other US-based jihadist extremists, according to a count by the New America Foundation.

However, the attacks in Libya and Boston don't really change the prognosis that al Qaeda, the organization that attacked the U.S. on 9/11, is going the way of the VHS tape.

Al Qaeda itself hasn't carried out a successful attack in the West since the suicide bombings in London in 2005 that killed 52. And the terrorist group hasn't carried out an attack in the United States since 9/11. Nor have any of its affiliated groups.

The killings of several high-level al Qaeda militants -- foremost among them the organization's founder and leader, Osama bin Laden, during a Navy SEAL raid on his compound in May 2011 -- have dealt a serious blow to al Qaeda's core leadership.

A few months after bin Laden's death, a U.S. drone strike killed Atiyah Abdul Rahman, who had become al Qaeda's No. 2 commander after Ayman al-Zawahiri had assumed bin Laden's leadership role.

Rahman was one of 30 leaders of al Qaeda in Pakistan who have been killed in CIA drone strikes over the past five years, according to a count by the New America Foundation.

Al Qaeda "Central," in short, remains on life support.

A second chance with the Arab Spring

However, the unrest that swept the Arab world in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring has provided jihadist extremist groups with more room to operate and injected large amounts of arms into the region.

Al Qaeda affiliates subsequently gained significant footholds in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Mali. But the bulk of jihadist violence in those countries is focused on purely domestic targets. And in countries such as Mali and Yemen, jihadist militants have overplayed their hands and have suffered real reverses in the past year or so.

As a result, the attacks by al Qaeda-aligned groups on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi in September and on the BP gas facility in Algeria, at the beginning of this year represent the current state of jihadist anti-Western capabilities abroad.

Worldwide, al Qaeda affiliates and allied groups aren't a major threat to the West:

-- Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remains a real threat to Yemen, but despite its strong interest in U.S. targets, the group has not attempted any serious anti-American attack since its failed October 2010 plot to plant bombs hidden in printer cartridges on cargo planes destined for the United States. However, AQAP's capable chief bomb maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, remains at large.

-- A long-term safe haven for the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria known as Jabhat al-Nusra, ( "the Victory Front") could create an organization with the capability to attack the West. For the moment, the group, which is widely regarded as the most effective fighting force in Syria, is focused on overthrowing the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a project that may take years to achieve.

That said, this group is gaining substantial territory in Syria; is attracting thousands of foreign fighters, including hundreds from the West; and might eventually turn its attention to Western targets.

-- Al Qaeda in Iraq has also become deeply involved in the civil war in Syria. It has also successfully leveraged a growing sectarian divide in Iraq to garner support from the Sunni community and is, once again, a real threat to the stability of Iraq.

-- Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its splinter groups have little ability to target the West but still pose a threat to Western interests in their areas of operation. AQIM and its splinter groups remain active in parts of Algeria, where they attacked the BP gas facility in early 2013, and northern Mali, where they launched an offensive against the government alongside separatist Tuareg rebels in 2012. However, AQIM and its splinter groups were pushed out of major Malian cities by a French military intervention earlier this year

-- In the past two years, the Somali al Qaeda affiliate, Al-Shabaab, has lost substantial territory and influence in Somalia. While Al-Shabaab remains a potential threat to Western targets because of the group's influence among the Somali diaspora in the West, recent battlefield defeats have forced the group to focus internally.

Al-Shabaab has never conducted a successful attack in the West and has not conducted a mass-casualty attack outside of Somalia since it carried out bombings in Kampala, Uganda, in 2010.

-- Islamist militant groups remain a threat to stability in Libya in the post-Moammar Gadhafi era. Ansar al-Sharia's loose network of Islamist militants have conducted attacks and gained some legitimacy among the local populace in Benghazi. Ansar al-Sharia is not, however, organizationally or operationally linked to al Qaeda, and it operates only within Libya.

-- The Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, is largely a threat to Pakistan, Afghanistan, NATO soldiers and Western interests in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. It has attempted only two attacks outside the region. TTP has not conducted an attack on American soil since it directed Faisal Shahzad to carry out a car bombing that proved unsuccessful on May 1, 2010, in Times Square.

-- The Afghan Taliban continue to lead a potent insurgency in Afghanistan, launching persistent attacks against U.S. forces, as well as military, diplomatic, and aid facilities. They remain in control of significant swaths of land in rural Afghanistan, and will continue to threaten Afghan stability after the NATO combat mission ends in December 2014. However, they have shown no interest in mounting an attack against the U.S. homeland.

-- The Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba has not conducted a mass-casualty attack outside of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region since its lethal rampage in Mumbai in 2008. Similarly, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union have not showed an interest in or ability to engage in international terrorism since an IJU-linked terrorism cell was broken up in Sauerland, Germany, in 2007.

-- Because of continued government crackdowns throughout Southeast Asia, the once-virulent threat posed by the al Qaeda aligned regional terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah has decreased significantly over the past few years.

Terror groups have local preoccupations

Given the weaknesses and the local preoccupations of the terrorist groups described in this story, many U.S. counterterrorism officials believe the chances of a large-scale, catastrophic terrorist attack in the United States by al Qaeda or an al Qaeda-affiliated or inspired organization are quite small.

Also, the long-term prognosis for most of these terrorist groups is poor because they have all tended to kill many Muslim civilians, and they offer no political or economic ideas to cure the real problems of much of the Islamic world.

However, continued unrest throughout the greater Middle East, especially the current turmoil in Egypt, the rising tensions across the region between Sunnis and Shia, the continuing Syrian civil war and the uncertain future of Afghanistan after U.S. and NATO combat troops are withdrawn in December 2014 are all potential wild cards that could create an environment that gives al Qaeda and allied groups opportunities to resuscitate themselves.

And at home, the Boston Marathon bombings remind us that the United States still faces a threat from disaffected individuals inspired by al Qaeda's ideology and who often radicalize in the online world.

Although they are difficult to detect, these individuals are also quite unlikely to be capable of perpetrating an attack even remotely on the scale of 9/11.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT