Aspen panelists disagree about al-Qaida’s status
July 27, 2012
ASPEN – Should the U.S. declare victory over al-Qaida? Yes, argued CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen on Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum, a four-day event that has made terrorism and counterterrorism its theme.
Bergen’s fellow panelists lived up to the session’s promise of “Differing Perspectives on Terrorism” by offering just that in a packed room at the Aspen Meadows’ Doerr-Hosier Center.
Bergen, in a recent article, suggested the U.S. could declare victory over al-Qaida and direct its resources and attention to more pressing matters.
“Their strategy failed even though they scored a tactical victory,” Bergen said in reference to 9/11.
Since then, al-Qaida-inspired individuals have killed 17 people in the U.S. – about the same number of people killed by dogs each year in this country – and the group had no influence in the so-called Arab Spring, a series of uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa.
“There are probably more people at this conference than members of al-Qaida in Yemen today,” Bergen said. “At the end of the day, I think we need to put this thing in perspective.”
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To do otherwise, Bergen suggested, is to fight an endless war.
“They’re struggling for relevance,” agreed P.J. Crowley, former assistant secretary for public affairs with the State Department. “Far more Muslims have died at the hands of al-Qaida than Americans.”
The threat might have eased, Crowley said, but it’s not gone.
“There is an opportunity here for somebody, a small group, to attack the United States in a meaningful way,” he said.
The group has morphed into a different sort of threat, said Maurice Sonnenberg, senior international adviser with JPMorgan Chase. To the extent al-Qaida causes instability in other parts of the world, it remains a threat, he said, suggesting that the group has gone “viral.”
“The nature of the threat has changed,” agreed former U.S. Rep. Jane Harman. “We should not say that the threat is gone. The threat is different, but it is still here.”
Nonetheless, the U.S. could “streamline” its response to al-Qaida, she said.
Both Harman and Sonnenberg also credited U.S. and worldwide intelligence with thwarting other al-Qaida attacks on U.S. soil – efforts that have helped diminish the group’s status as a threat.
Whether intelligence efforts could, or should, have prevented an attack closer to home – the recent shooting spree by a lone gunman at an Aurora movie theater that left 12 people dead – is another matter.
No one has suggested that a system or policy failure is to blame for James Holmes’ shooting spree, Crowley stressed.
But stopping such “lone wolf” acts has been a discussion in government, according to Philip Mudd, former deputy director of national security with the FBI and former deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center.
“This is a frustrating conversation,” he said. “This dude’s not a terrorist. He’s a murderer.”
Pinpointing the Holmeses of the world among the broader group of people who, for example, purchase guns and ammunition and engage in various Internet searches means a significant intelligence invasion into the privacy of many, Mudd said. He compared the effort to boiling down the ocean to a single drop.
The Aspen Security Forum, hosted by the Aspen Institute, continues through Saturday.
Go to http://aspensecurityforum.org/agenda1 for the program schedule.