Can we at least agree that reports of al-Qaeda’s death have been greatly exaggerated? You’ll recall that Peter Bergen, a director at the New America Foundation and the national-security analyst for CNN, began pronouncing AQ dead last summer. At the Aspen Institute, he even gave a speech titled “Time to Declare Victory: Al Qaeda Is Defeated.” He defended this thesis repeatedly, including in a debate with me on Wolf Blitzer’s show on CNN.
President Obama has not gone quite that far. Prior to the election, in stump speeches round the country, he said al-Qaeda had been “decimated.” And even in his inaugural address this week he claimed that “a decade of war is now ending.” (He also spoke of “peace in our time” — a phrase made infamous by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938. Is it possible Obama did not know that? Worse, is it possible that he did?)
The evidence that AQ is alive and lethal is abundant. To cite just a few examples: the French ground war in Mali against AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and associated forces, the hostage-taking in Algeria by self-proclaimed jihadists closely linked to AQ, the surge of AQ-connected fighters in Syria, and, of course, the 9/11/12 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi by AQ-affiliated groups.
I do not stress this to disparage anyone. Nor do I intend to pat on the back those of us who have maintained that AQ and other jihadist groups are neither dead nor dying but rather evolving in ways that merit both study and concern. Serious analysts sometimes arrive at wrong conclusions. But serious analysts acknowledge their errors, attempt to determine what data or misassumptions led them astray, and work to reshape their narrative in conformance with reality. Serious analysts are acutely aware that no strategic mistake is more dangerous than telling yourself you are winning when you are not.