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What Eight Years Of Bush Bought You: ‘Al Qaeda Has Strengthened Its Safe Haven’

Ah, strategic myopia. Yesterday, Ted Gistaro, a top intelligence analyst, gave a speech to the Washington Institute about Al Qaeda’s intent and capability to attack us at home. Here’s what’s been going on with the people who murdered 3000 Americans in 2001 while we’ve been debating about how well everything’s been going in Iraq:

First, Al Qaeda has strengthened its safe haven in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) by deepening its alliances with Pakistani militants and pushing many elements of Pakistani government authority from the area. It now has many of the operational and organizational advantages it once enjoyed across the border in Afghanistan, albeit on a smaller and less secure scale.

Second, despite some significant losses, Al Qaeda has replenished its bench of skilled mid-level lieutenants capable of directing its global operations. These losses collectively represent the most serious blow to Al Qaeda’s leadership since 2005.

While it sometimes can take several months to replace these individuals, Al Qaeda has developed succession plans, can reshuffle leadership responsibilities, and promote younger commanders with years of battlefield experience to senior positions. The leaders’ collocation in the FATA allows them to manage the organization collaboratively, helping facilitate the replacement of key figures.

Put aside for a second the contradiction between dealing "the most serious blow to Al Qaeda’s leadership since 2005" and… that blow being shaken off like dirt from Jay-Z’s shoulders. (Guess that we didn’t really deal Al Qaeda such a setback in 2005.) Al Qaeda is basically unmolested in the FATA, getting stronger, and preparing to attack. We see this right before our eyes. There isn’t going to be any 9/11 Commission moment after the next attack in which the next Condoleezza Rice will plead with moistened eyes that no one could have anticipated using planes as missiles or the intelligence community didn’t give specific-enough threat warnings. Instead, the legacy on display amid the smoldering ashes of the next World Trade Center will be that of diverting U.S. military, intelligence, economic and diplomatic resources to quagmires of choice instead of decimating an actually existing threat. Oh, and demagoguing a threat that the demagogues had neither the capability nor the wisdom to destroy.

The good news? At the end of Gistaro’s remarks, he mentions the theological disputes that former members/sympathizers of Al Qaeda have recently put forward against the murderers, as Peter Bergen, Paul Cruickshank and Lawrence Wright have documented:

Over the past year, some hardline religious leaders and extremists who once had significant influence with Al Qaeda have publicly criticized it, including Sayyid Imam Abd al-Aziz al- Sharif, a jailed Egyptian terrorist who once saved bin Laden’s life, and Saudi cleric Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, whom bin Laden credits as a leading ideological influence.

Al Qaeda senior leaders in 2008 have devoted nearly half their airtime to defending the group’s legitimacy. This defensive tone continues a trend observed since at least last summer and reflects concern over allegations by militant leaders and religious scholars that Al Qaeda and its affiliates have violated the Islamic laws of war, particularly in Iraq and North Africa.

By putting that at the end of the speech, Gistaro seems to denigrate its importance, though.

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