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American Security Project’s new report on terrorism trends has optimistic note

The American Security Project has just released its report,  Are We Winning 2009: Measuring Progress in the Struggle Against al Qaeda and Associate Movements. Authored by Dr. Bernard Finel and Christine Bartolf, the report has a more positive tone that previous years’ reports. As Dr. Finel explains:

The 2009 version of “Are We Winning” is markedly more optimistic than previous editions of the report.  Although the level of “Islamist” violence surged over the past 12 months – up 20-30% from 2008 levels – there are several trends that suggest that al Qaeda (AQ) is in a much weaker position.  Key findings include

(1)                Islamist violence continues to surge globally due to significant increases in attacks in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.  The number of Islamist attacks reached new highs in 2009.  This is a significant source of concern since the this implies a growing pool of violent radicals who might be recruited for attack on the United States or Western interests.

(2)                The status of the AQ brand has diminished.  Support for AQ and Osama bin Laden in the Muslim world is down into single digits, after having hovered around 20-30% for the past several years.  This brings support for AQ down into the same range as support for terrorism, suggesting that AQ has largely managed to squander its image as a defender – albeit flawed – of the Muslim world against the West.  It is not quite clear why this happened, though it is likely that al Qaeda in Iraq’s excesses contributed.  The ethnographic evidence to confirm this hypothesis is lacking, but this seems like a plausible interpretation

3)                Several “affiliates” are distancing themselves from al Qaeda.  The defection of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was the clearest indication of this trend, but even in Afghanistan it seems clear that the Quetta Shura Taliban is trying to reposition itself as a national liberation movement.  There seems to be a reversal where instead of seeing locally focused groups aligning themselves with AQ’s global agenda, instead we are seeing a return to a regional/local focus, and in some cases a move out of “jihadism” into simple criminality.  Shabaab in Somalia is the one prominent exception to this trend.

(4)                In terms of a threat to the U.S. homeland, the risk of attacks from Somalia may be as significant as the risk from Pakistan.  There is strong evidence of American residents traveling to Somalia for training, and terrorist recruiters are operating in Somali communities in the United States as evidenced by arrests in Minneapolis this past year.

That said, the big change is that there is compelling evidence that these developments combined with increased tactical success in the drone war, demonstrate a weakened capacity of AQ “central.”  There were fewer AQ videos this past year, and they are of lower quality.  AQ websites have been brought down or hacked.  There is also some evidence of fundraising problems.  All of which suggests some institutional weakening.

Good news! Let’s hope progress continues.

Below is a video of Anderson Cooper on CNN discussing the report.

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One Comment

  • William "Chris" Yount says:

    While I agree the report points out some key areas to be reassured about, I wonder if it places too much importance on association with Al Qaeda. Do you think that these disassociations will lead to fewer overall attacks or simply a shifting of strategy to focus on regional and local targets?

    It also seems to me that a splintering of the groups would make each of them more difficult to track as the leadership/funding structure becomes more decentralized. Could we expect further disassociation from AQ, but a continued increase in the number of attacks? And if so, would that be considered progress?

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.