The latest National Intelligence Estimate has been released (PDF link), and after 5 pages of introductory material, there are only 2 pages for it to actually say something of substance: and what it is says is hardly groundbreaking:
Al-Qa’ida is and will remain the most serious terrorist threat to the Homeland, as its central leadership continues to plan high-impact plots, while pushing others in extremist Sunni communities to mimic its efforts and to supplement its capabilities. We assess the group has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability, including: a safehaven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), operational lieutenants, and its top leadership. Although we have discovered only a handful of individuals in the United States with ties to al-Qa’ida senior leadership since 9/11, we judge that al-Qa’ida will intensify its efforts to put operatives here.
The biggest problem we face in regards to al-Qaeda is Pakistan: al-Qaeda has found a refuge there, and now they’ve been able to reform and regroup. While some are suggesting violating Pakistani sovereignty to go after al-Qaeda, that option is deeply problematic. The Musharraf government hangs by a string, and if Musharraf falls the situation in Pakistan could go from bad to worse. Not only could a hardcore Islamist government take his place, but a dangerous nationalist government could also present a major threat by ratcheting up tensions between Pakistan and India — both of which are nuclear powers. As tempting as that course of action is, it has to be weighed in balance with the potential for a regional nuclear crisis. Is getting al-Zawahiri or bin Laden worth the costs? It’s not entirely clear that the benefits of taking down al-Qaeda’s leadership is necessarily great enough to justify the risk — at least not yet.
Ideally, President Musharraf would begin to take down al-Qaeda from his side of the border — and perhaps the assault on the Red Mosque signals that Musharraf is willing to take a harder stance against Pakistani Islamists. However, he also has to consider the risks to his life, and any pushback won’t come unless Musharraf knows that he has enough breathing room to bear the risk. Unfortunately for us, with the Islamist presence in Pakistan being as large as it is, it’s not clear when that might happen — or if it might happen.
The NIE continues:
We assess that al-Qa’ida will continue to enhance its capabilities to attack the Homeland through greater cooperation with regional terrorist groups. Of note, we assess that al-Qa’ida will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI), its most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the Homeland. In addition, we assess that its association with AQI helps al-Qa’ida to energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks.
With the Anbar Awakening creating a Sunni rejectionist movement, is this really the case? AQI is certainly the most visible “affiliate” of al-Qaeda (although there’s really not much of a distinction between the two — al-Qaeda in Iraq is for all intents and purposes a wholly-owned subsidiary of the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan and acts under their orders), but as of yet the one Western attack linked to AQI has been a spectacular failure. If AQI is emboldening the larger Sunni community, why hasn’t there been any particular evidence of this?
An equally compelling theory is that al-Qaeda’s resources are being devoted to fighting in Iraq, leaving them constrained in their efforts at attacking elsewhere. Al-Qaeda does not have a limitless supply of terrorists, and it takes time and effort to train and equip a terrorist cell. The NIE does indicate that our counter-terrorism efforts have limited al-Qaeda’s financial resources in a serious way — does al-Qaeda have the capability to simultaneously fight an increasingly difficult battle in Iraq and launch ambitious new attacks on the West?
There are several unwarranted assumptions here — for example, AQI is certainly not the only branch of al-Qaeda which desires to attack the United States — what terrorist group doesn’t have that goal? Furthermore, al-Qaeda didn’t seem to have a problem with recruiting extremists before the invasion of Iraq — their hatred of the West goes back a lot longer than recent political history.
While there’s no doubt that the invasion of Iraq has had an effect on al-Qaeda — the group itself admits as much, that effect has hardly been positive. Al-Qaeda, like any organization has only so many resources under its command, and they’re devoting the bulk of their forces to Iraq. Each al-Qaeda operative killed or captured there is an al-Qaeda operative unable to launch or assist in attacks elsewhere. Every riyal, dollar, or Euro spent on Iraq is a riyal, dollar, or Euro that can’t be spent on equipping terrorist cells in the United States. The argument that Iraq is somehow a “distraction” from the larger war on terror ignores the fact that al-Qaeda is in Iraq, and that’s the battlefield they’ve chosen. Given the extremely one-sided nature of our battles with al-Qaeda in Iraq, it’s far more likely that they are spending more of their manpower and resources fighting the United States then we are fighting them — and if the Sunnis continue to reject AQI, they may be fighting a battle that it is no longer possible for them to win.
The NIE then states the most obvious point of all:
We assess that al-Qa’ida’s Homeland plotting is likely to continue to focus on prominent political, economic, and infrastructure targets with the goal of producing mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, significant economic aftershocks, and/or fear among the US population. The group is proficient with conventional small arms and improvised explosive devices, and is innovative in creating new capabilities and overcoming security obstacles.
- We assess that al-Qa’ida will continue to try to acquire and employ chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear material in attacks and would not hesitate to use them if it develops what it deems is sufficient capability.
In other words, we can’t let our guards down, and we can’t count on purely defensive measures to save us — al-Qaeda is planning the next attack, and they know that all it takes is one bit of luck to inflict another mass casualty attack. We cannot blithely assume that this war is little more than a “bumper sticker” — the stakes are very real, and we need leadership that comprehends the threat and is willing to face it rather than hope it all goes away.