The changing nature of the terrorist threat

THE CHANGING NATURE OF THE TERRORIST THREAT…. The Guardian had a report a couple of weeks ago on al Qaeda “finding it difficult to attract recruits or carry out spectacular operations in western countries.” Counter-terrorism officials said the terrorist network “faced a crisis that was severely affecting its ability to find, inspire and train willing fighters.”

The New York Times had a related report today, which explored the issue in more depth, but reached a similar conclusion: “[I]n important ways, Al Qaeda and its ideology of global jihad are in a pronounced decline.”

Emile Nakhleh, who headed the CIA’s strategic analysis program on political Islam until 2006, noted that al Qaeda is “finding it harder to recruit” and “harder to raise money.” Audrey Kurth Cronin, a professor at the National War College in Washington, added, “I think Al Qaeda is in the process of imploding. This is not necessarily the end. But the trends are in a good direction.”

What’s producing these encouraging results?

[S]ome government officials do take quiet, if wary, satisfaction in two developments that they say underlie the broad belief that Al Qaeda is on a downhill slope. One is the success of military Special Operations units, the C.I.A. and allies in killing prominent terrorists.

Three days apart in mid-September, American special forces in Somalia firing from helicopters killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a leader of a Somalian organization, Al Shabab, which is allied with Al Qaeda, and the police in Indonesia killed the most-wanted terrorist in Southeast Asia, Noordin Muhammad Top, in an assault on a house in Java.

In Pakistan, missile strikes from C.I.A. drone aircraft have taken a steady toll on Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies since the Bush administration accelerated these attacks last year, a policy reinforced by President Obama. A count of such strikes, compiled by the Center for American Progress in Washington, found a handful in 2006 and 2007, rising rapidly to 36 in 2008, and another 36 so far in 2009, nearly all in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

In addition to thinning the ranks of potential plotters, the constant threat of attack from the air makes it far harder for terrorists to move, communicate, and plan, counterterrorism officials say. And while the officials say they worry about a public backlash in response to the civilians killed during the air attacks, those officials also say the strikes may be frightening away potential recruits for terrorism.

The second trend is older and probably more critical. The celebration in many Muslim countries that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has given way to broad disillusionment with mass killing and the ideology behind it, according to a number of polls.

Between 2002 and 2009, the view that suicide bombings are “often or sometimes justified” has declined, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, from 43 percent to 12 percent in Jordan; from 26 percent to 13 percent in Indonesia; and from 33 percent to 5 percent in Pakistan (excluding some sparsely populated, embattled areas). Positive ratings for Osama bin Laden have fallen by half or more in most of the countries Pew polled.

On that latter point, it seems many in the Middle East who may have initially been sympathetic to al Qaeda soon discovered the group had very little to offer in the way of practical solutions to everyday problems. And as terrorist attacks began killing civilians in counties like Jordan, regional support plummeted and al Qaeda appeared discredited. The “movement’s pronounced decline has continued apace in recent years.

This is not to say the threat is gone, or will vanish soon. On the contrary, the Obama administration made some key arrests this week, apprehending those who allegedly intended to do considerable harm. It doesn’t take a vast terrorist network to launch a devastating attack — as the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995 helped demonstrate — and copycat terrorism will remain a danger.

That said, the larger, global trends and counter-terrorism successes in the United States are heartening, to put it mildly.