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Al Qaeda 3.0

The ‘War on Terror’ After the Bush Administration

Panel 1: The Future of Al-Qaeda

Frances Fragos Townsend noted that the two foiled Al-Qaeda plots in 2004 and 2006 prove that Al-Qaeda ought to still be taken seriously. She stated that “North Africa is more significant than most people talk about…[and] is a threat to the U.S. because of immigration through Western Europe.” The recent attacks on the Marriot Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan and the U.S. Embassy in Yemen also prove that Al-Qaeda is still a threat. She argued that Al-Qaeda is an intelligent organization that understands geopolitics and has historically timed their attacks with important elections.

Bruce Hoffman –Hoffman argued that “Reports of Al-Qaeda’s death will also prove to be greatly exaggerated…[and] Al-Qaeda remains the most serious threat to the U.S.” Overall, Al-Qaeda has re-strengthened, because the organization is offered a safe haven in the tribal areas of Pakistan. He believes that “It is precisely when we are lulled into complacency…that Al-Qaeda can strike.” Defeating Al-Qaeda in the long-term requires a dual strategy of killing and capturing members and breaking the cycle of terrorist recruitment.

Steve Coll – Coll stated that he would attempt to offer the unique perspective of a “writer” on the subject of Al-Qaeda. Coll stated that “Al-Qaeda has now returned to the scene of its birth” referring to various tribal areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He also noted that Al-Qaeda as an organization has failed in a few significant regards – it does not offer social services, own governments, or have significant support of the public. The danger, however, is that “Al-Qaeda is embedded in a weak state – Pakistan.”

Peter Bergen – Bergen stated that “Al-Qaeda in Iraq has committed something of a suicide, albeit an assisted suicide.” Bergen detailed the various motivations behind Al-Qaeda, and argued that Al-Qaeda as an organization is in the process of imploding. Bergen went on to list important insights that are oft-forgotten when thinking about terrorism including that (1) “terrorism is a bourgeoisie endeavor” and not exclusive to the impoverished; (2) often, terrorist attend western-styled schools, not religious madrassas; and (3) historical influence of the CIA is not to blame.

Panel 2: the War of Ideas

Daniel Kimmage noted the importance of media for international jihad. The newly termed, “jihadist media” has created its own brand and forums, and has been picked up by the mainstream media and broadcast throughout the world. Technology also brings a new wave of terror, in which a couple of computer guys in India can damage intricate systems of information. Daniel also pointed out that Youtube has opened new horizons for disseminating ideas; it offers easy access for all.

Eliza Griswold is a poet who has travelled extensively throughout Asia and Africa while writing about their Muslim societies. She stated that eighty percent of the world’s Muslims live outside of the Middle East. The various cultures affect the religiosity and militancy. No religion is a monolith. There are splits in the organization that shape reality. But Eliza pointed out that religious identity is crucial for most of the world, often more important than nationhood. Any perceived “anti-Islamic” sentiment will be felt around the world.

Lawrence Wright began by speaking about Dr. Fadl, the primary Al Qaeda theologian, who has been the voice of reason and forbidding the killing of civilians. Lawrence discussed the important internal discourse within Islam and even groups considered extreme. He opined that this is an important time for the US to reorient towards Islam by reducing the visible presence in Iraq, focusing on the Kashmir region, and working to separate the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Lawrence insisted that the State Department needed to launch an intensive public diplomacy initiative focused on predominantly Muslim countries. Important steps would be: closing Gitmo, increasing development aid, and communicating with locals.

Panel 3: The Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Seth Jones said that while the Taliban is perceived as unified and organized, in reality it is a loosely collected system of militant groups, political parties, tribes, criminal organizations and state agencies—al Qaeda included—among whom both links and tensions exist.To defeat the Taliban, Dr. Jones argued that the United States should work with NATO and the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan to target Taliban senior leaders and to separate supporters from their leadership on the local level.

Christine Fair addressed the issue of militant groups in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan.While the Pakistan government has played some role in targeting and removing top militant leaders, it has no overall strategy to meet the U.S. goal of uprooting the groups at large.Thus, Dr. Fair concluded, the United States will need to establish a strategic relationship with the Pakistan military, and to address anti-Americanism and an alienated Pakistan population.

Nir Rosen spoke the loss of American influence in Afghanistan.However, he also spoke of pragmatism in the Taliban leaders with whom he interacted, who rejected suicide bombers, expressed interest in negotiating with the Afghan police under certain conditions, and approved of girls’ enrollment in school.Mr. Rosen concluded that the United States should attempt to engage with this pragmatic strain of Taliban leaders.

Panel 4: Al-Qaeda in the Arab World and Europe

Abdel Bari Atwan gave a broad overview of the threats Al-Qaeda poses through its operations in North Africa and Afghanistan. In North Africa, Al Qaeda is the only organization that can unify Burghers and Arabs and may also serve as a safe haven for other Islamist groups from Libya. In Afghanistan, “Al Qaeda isn’t attacking the US because the US has come to Al-Qaeda”.

Brian Fishman explained some of the factors that have contributed to Al-Qaeda’s weakened position in Iraq. The US Special Forces, the Sunni Awakening, and forward military command posts have all contributed to taking away Al-Qaeda’s sanctuaries. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda has suffered from the large number of foreign fighters who have joined their ranks creating logistical problems, language barriers, and popular resentment among the Iraqi public.

Mohammed Hafez argued that Al-Qaeda has suffered a “strategic defeat” in Iraq. Al-Qaeda has recently made a video expressing their anger at the Sunnis, who have been their allies in the past. Iraq is transitioning from a failed-state to a rentier state, and “the only long-term strategic threat that Al-Qaeda in Iraq can pose, is if they leave Iraq and head to Algeria or Lebanon”.

Thomas Hegghammer focused on the complicated relationship between Al-Qaeda and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden has tried to build up Al-Qaeda’s role in The Kingdom but failed. “In Saudi Arabia, Classical Jihadism has always been stronger than Global Jihadism”. The symbols of Global Jihadism, Muslim suffering at the hands of non-Muslims, are not as influential in The Kingdom as they are in Iraq or Chechnya.

Panel 5: Counter-radicalization: What Works?

First, Christopher Boucek described the ambitious ‘soft’ Saudi de-radicalization policy in the Middle East, which shows that the Saudi government takes its anti-terrorism efforts very seriously. Saudi Arabia enforces Saudi-type-solutions, which involve rehabilitative programs rather than focusing on punishment. In addition, the Saudi government also provides the families of poor criminals with financial support.

Zachery Abuza described the disengagement programs of Southeast Asia, where thousands of people are arrested for prejudice. The disengagement programs try to defend the rights of innocent people who are detained in those countries. Sixty percent of victims who are arrested in Singapore and sixty-five percent in Malaysia have been released unconditionally or conditionally as a result of this disengagement programs.

Finally, Kenneth Ballen emphasized the importance of the Saudi counter-radicalization program as a role model for other countries. Though it is too early to develop definitive conclusions, the Saudi program has made significant progress toward eradicating extremism in that country.

Panel 6: Counterterrorism and American Security

Philip Mudd discussed the differences between the homegrown threat facing the U.S. and the Al-Qaeda central leadership threat. The AQ central leadership threat has improved its operational capacity because of safe havens allowing them to plan more, but is reduced as an ideological threat due to attacks on civilians. The homegrown threat is our greatest threat. Mudd made an important note that it is no longer useful to think of terrorists as operating in cells. We should look to them as clusters, in the sense they are ideologically motivated together, but have not idea of what they are going to do.

Marc Sageman began his discussion with the process of radicalization as a “path to political violence.” People, mostly young males, begin with a sense of moral outrage of what they see or read about, they empathize with this and frame it in the context of Islam. They then cluster to together with ideologically similar individuals. His policy recommendations are to reduce the U.S. footprint in Iraq, challenge the thought that there is a war on Islam, reduce discrimination in labor markets, and eradicate local terrorist networks.

Mitchell Silber discussed the nature of the radicalized threat moving forward. Attacks committed after 9/11 showed that terrorists are now acting without control or funding from AQ central leadership, these terrorists are funded by local residents and are inspired by AQ. Since 9/11, U.S. authorities have uncovered radicalized clusters of individuals intent on committing violent jihad; these arrests, along with intelligence operations, indicate that radicalization and self-recruiting are taking place in the U.S.

Joseph Zogby spoke about how policies that violate civil liberties undermine our counterterrorism efforts. A counterterrorism policy that respects human rights will ultimately assist with this effort and improve the image of the U.S.

Ambassador Michael Sheehan ended the conference with a discussion of the AQ threat and recommendations to the next administration. Quoting Bill Parcels, “you are what your record is,” Sheehan noted that in 37 months from Aug 1998 to Sept 2001, AQ successfully executed 3 strategic attacks against the U.S. In 7 years after 9/11, AQ has been unsuccessful in every attempted attack against the U.S. Sheehan noted we need to keep pressure on AQ to marginalize them over the next 20 years.

-Summary by Timothy Little, Doga Cigdemoglu, Chris Knight, Alex Kahan, and Josh Meah, Researcher Interns for the American Strategy Program


Russell Senate Office Building, Caucus Room 325
Washington, DC
See map: Google Maps


  • 8:45 am Registration and Arrival

  • 9:00 am Introductory Remarks

    Steve Clemons
    New America Foundation
    Karen Greenberg
    Center on Law and Security, New York University

  • 9:15 am The Future of Al Qaeda Click here for video clip*

    Frances Fragos Townsend
    Homeland Security Advisor to President Bush 2004-2008
    Bruce Hoffman
    Georgetown University
    Steve Coll
    New America Foundation & The New Yorker
    Peter Bergen
    New America Foundation & CNN

  • 10:45 am The War of Ideas Click here for video clip

    Lawrence Wright
    NYU Center on Law and Security & The New Yorker
    Daniel Kimmage (PowerPoint Presentation PDF, 14 pps.)
    Author, "Iraqi Insurgent Media: The War of Images and Ideas"
    Eliza Griswold
    New America Foundation

  • 12:00 pm Lunch & The Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan Click here for video clip

    Seth Jones
    Christine Fair
    Nir Rosen
    NYU Center on Law and Security & New America Foundation

  • 1:15 pm Al Qaeda in the Arab World and Europe Click here for video clip

    Abdel Bari Atwan
    Al Quds Al Arabi
    Brian Fishman (PowerPoint Presentation, PDF, 5 pps.)
    Combating Terrorism Center, West Point
    Mohammed Hafez
    Naval Postgraduate School
    Thomas Hegghammer
    Harvard University & Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI)

  • 2:30 pm Counter-Radicalization: What Works? Click here for video clip

    Christopher Boucek
    Carnegie Endowment
    Zachary Abuza
    Simmons College
    Kenneth Ballen (PowerPoint Presentation, PDF, 12 pps.)
    Terror Free Tomorrow

  • 3:45 pm Counterterrorism and American Security Click here for video clip

    Philip Mudd
    National Security Branch, FBI
    Marc Sageman (PowerPoint Presentation, PDF, 9 pps.)
    New York Police Department
    Mitchell Silber (PowerPoint Presentation, PDF, 11 pps.)
    Intelligence Division’s Analytic and Cyber Units, New York Police Department
    Ambassador Michael Sheehan
    NYU Center on Law and Security, former NYC Deputy Police Commissioner

  • 5:15 pm Adjournment

Event Time and Location

Friday, October 10, 2008 - 9:45am - 6:00pm