Reality check for America’s war against al Qaeda

May 2, 2008

The U.S. State Department has just released its 2007 report on terrorism worldwide and it doesn’t look like it is winning the war against al Qaeda seven years after the Sept 11 attacks. The group not only remains the biggest threat to the United States and its allies, but using the tribal areas of Pakistan it has rebuilt some of its pre-Sept 11 capabilities. And its top  leadership, especially Ayman al-Zawahri, has regained some of its control over the group’s operations worldwide, says the report.

Ayman al-Zawahri

It makes for sobering reading and some of the figures are worth recounting.

-  The number of what the report identified as terrorist attacks worldwide fell slightly in 2007, but the number of people killed in the attacks rose to 22,685, from 20,872 in the previous year which suggests that people around the globe were getting increasingly efficient killing other people, as Russ Travers of the National Counterterrorism Center put it.
  One factor contributing to the increased lethality of attacks: increased use of backpacks by suicide bombers that are easier to sneak into crowded areas.

- A 50 percent increase in suicide attacks worldwide over the previous year and this ranged from somebody as young as a 15-year-old boy to a 64-year-old man in the advanced stages of cancer, potentially the oldest.

 - Incidents fell slightly in Iraq, but still accounted for 45 percent of all attacks and 60 percent of all fatalities worldwide in 2007.

- Pakistan saw the grimmest change, a 100 percent increase in attacks, and injuries and fatalities quadrupled.

- A 16 percent increase in attacks in Afghanistan

- Well over 50 percent of those killed or injured were Muslims.

- 2,400 children were killed or injured in 2007 by suicide attacks, an increase of 25 percent.U.S. soldier on patrol in Afghanistan/Goran Tomasevic

 The one silver lining according to Oxford Analytica is that several radical groups, who are engaged in local conflicts, could be undermining al Qaeda’s appeal in some parts of the world by adopting its brand name.

Al Qaeda’s legitimacy rests on convincing supporters that it acts justly to defend Muslims against domination by foreigners. On current trends, this message may increasingly be undermined: as the State Department notes, several radical causes adopted al Qaeda’s ‘brand’ during 2006 and 2007, importing it into conflicts in Algeria and Libya as well as longer-established battlegrounds.

This insertion into intractable local conflicts — such as the confrontation between radical Islamists and the state in Algeria — is a key reason for the high share of Muslims in the global death toll from terrorism.

If al Qaeda’s potential supporters associate the group with the indiscriminate slaughter of their fellow practitioners — rather than daring assaults against US interests — its call to violence may no longer hit home.

Is that something the world can hold on to? Or is it a hopeless and unending cycle where the heavier the hammer used to crush the attackers, the more the backlash? Is it time to change tack?


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