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Outside editorial: Al-Qaida and its offshoots remain a threat

Posted: May 3, 2012 - 11:03pm

The following editorial appeared in the Baltimore Sun:

One year after Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs at his safe house in Pakistan, a substantially weakened al-Qaida and its affiliates continue to pose a threat to the West. The Pakistan-based group’s leadership has been decimated by drone strikes and is no longer believed capable of directing spectacular operations on the scale of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

But that doesn’t mean America and its allies can afford to let their guard down. Despite its losses, al-Qaida remains a resilient adversary committed to survive its founder’s demise, and its more recent offshoots in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and elsewhere could prove just as dangerous as the original.

After bin Laden’s death, U.S. counter-terrorism officials were initially heartened by a string of kills that followed against top al-Qaida commanders operating along the porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Drone strikes took out Ilyas Kashmiri, who is said to have been tasked by bin Laden to find a way to kill President Barack Obama, and Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, al-Qaida’s day-to-day chief of operations. Scores of lesser figures also fell victim to the drones.

Though bin Laden’s second-in-command and successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has managed to elude the drones hunting him, the relentless attacks have forced al-Qaida’s remaining senior officials in Pakistan to spend so much time in hiding that they may be increasingly out of touch with the movement they purport to lead. Meanwhile, the group’s willingness to kill fellow Muslims in the name of global jihad has tarnished the al-Qaida brand in the Islamic world, even as democratic revolutions in the Mideast offer a political alternative to terrorist violence.

Yet though bin Laden himself is dead, the radical philosophy of hatred for the West he espoused lives on, not only in terrorist groups that openly pattern themselves on al-Qaida, such as Yemen’s al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia’s al-Shabab, but also among the Islamist political parties that emerged in the wake of the Arab Spring, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists in Egypt, and the ultraconservative religious parties in Tunisia. Though the revolutions in those countries were largely driven by liberal activists who sought greater democratic freedoms, Islamic parties have dominated the first free elections there, and it remains to be seen whether they will echo in any way bin Laden’s unrelenting hostility to the West.

No such doubt surrounds the intent of avowed al-Qaida emulators such as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has been tied to two of the most recent failed attacks on U.S. targets. In 2009, the group dispatched the so-called underwear bomber in a failed attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day, and the following year it tried to send bombs through the mail to Chicago addresses. Last year, a CIA drone strike killed AQAP’s most charismatic leader, the Yemeni-born cleric and naturalized U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. But the group’s continued focus on attacking the American homeland makes it one of the most serious threats counter-terrorism officials must deal with.

Much of the discussion surrounding the anniversary of bin Laden’s death, however, has focused not on national security but on politics. President Barack Obama has made his decision to launch the mission that killed bin Laden a part of his re-election campaign, and Republicans have roundly criticized him for exploiting that success for partisan advantage. Of course, there’s more than a bit of hypocrisy in the GOP complaint, since President George W. Bush used the capture of Saddam Hussein for similar purposes when he ran for re-election.

President Obama would have gotten the blame had the raid on bin Laden’s compound failed, and quite aside from the question of what his opponent in November might have done under similar circumstances, he deserves credit for the mission’s success. Still, there is a limit to how much the president can make of bin Laden’s death without sounding unseemly — or out of touch with voters’ primary concern, the economy. Regardless, the most important question on this anniversary is not about what led up to bin Laden’s death but on what comes next. The world is safer without him in it, but it will not be safe enough until not just bin Laden’s life but also his legacy comes to an end.

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