November 2, 2010:
Al Qaeda has dispersed, with clusters of a few hundred members in places like northwest Pakistan, southern Somalia, southern Yemen, North Africa (mainly northeast Algeria) and West Africa (mainly along Algeria's southern border.) None of these places makes for a good terrorism headquarters.
Pakistan is at war with any group that carries out international terrorism (unless the target is India). The CIA has an army of informers on the ground and a fleet of missile armed UAVs attacking al Qaeda personnel about five times a week. While Pakistan has excellent Internet access and international air travel resources, it is an increasingly unfriendly place for al Qaeda.
Southern Somalia is a war zone, and many of the armed groups, including several Islamic radical ones, are hostile to al Qaeda. France and the U.S. have maintained a counter-terror operation in neighboring Djibouti for most of the last decade, just to keep an eye on the mayhem, and al Qaeda. Somalia is an awful place for anything, with no legal international air access and poor Internet connectivity.
Yemen is another hostile environment, but with better air service and Internet. Neighboring Saudi Arabia is very hostile to al Qaeda, and has its own informant network in Yemen. The Yemeni government is a tribal coalition that sees no benefit from having al Qaeda around and would like to see them gone.
North Africa (mainly northeast Algeria) is home to an older (than al Qaeda) Islamic terrorist group that was crushed by over a decade of savage battle with the local government. A few hundred Islamic radical survivors rebranded themselves as al Qaeda and feebly carry on.
West Africa is now an involuntary host to a few hundred Algerian Islamic terrorists who fled south (from Algeria) and survive off kidnapping Westerners and guarding cocaine shipments headed north to Europe. These guys are in survival mode, but still aspire to global mayhem.
There are many al Qaeda supporters among the Moslem expatriate population in the West, but they are closely watched, and regularly arrested and prosecuted if their support comes too close to action. But active al Qaeda are very vulnerable, if only because more and more Moslems will turn them in. In the last year, many al Qaeda have fled from Pakistan. Many of the fleeing al Qaeda members only recently fled from Iraq, or places like Syria and Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda has few other places to flee to. As bad as some of the current hideouts are, places like the southern Philippines, Chechnya, Malaysia, Gaza, southern Lebanon, Syria, Indonesia or Bosnia are even worse. The welcome mat is definitely not out for these guys.
Al Qaeda has been destroyed as an organization since September 11, 2001, and has evolved into a philosophy, one that has taken root in small pockets throughout the Moslem world. One important al Qaeda (which means "the base" in Arabic) concept that still provides targets to attack, is the desire to set up terrorist training camps. Here, true believers can improve their technical skills.
Although terrorist training manuals exist on the Internet, most Islamic terrorists are not well educated (many are illiterate) and benefit most from hands-on instruction. In these camps, terrorist leaders can also firm up the ideological strength of their trainees. The majority of the most successful Islamic terrorists have some of this training in their background. Thus a major counter-terror effort is directed at finding and destroying these camps.
The war in Iraq led to the collapse of al Qaeda support in the Persian Gulf. Al Qaeda declared the "battle for Iraq" to be a really big deal, and a struggle that they could not afford to lose. Al Qaeda did lose, and did so by killing over 50,000 Moslems and triggering an uprising by Islamic radicals in neighboring countries. Al Qaeda members in Saudi Arabia, who had long kept quiet inside the kingdom, in return for an informal truce and sanctuary, attacked. But once the bombs began going off in Saudi Arabia, popular opinion turned against the Islamic terrorists, and within three years, al Qaeda was crushed in what was, for all practical purposes, in its homeland. Many wealthy Saudis, who had long contributed large amounts of cash to Islamic extremists, cut their support. While al Qaeda lost most spectacularly in Iraq, they suffered even more damage because of their defeat in Saudi Arabia.
Ultimate victory against Islamic terrorism requires destroying the source of the anger and despair that creates the recruits. This is a cultural problem, and the cultural war moves slowly. The despots, and their millions of kin and associates, that rule the Moslem world, are not willing to surrender their power. Think of the Islamic world, especially the Arab countries, as the last empire. As earlier empires grew weak and helpless, they grew more dangerous. The oil money and urge to obtain nuclear weapons makes this empire even more dangerous than previous ones. Empires rarely end peacefully, and this one may expire in a particularly nasty fashion.