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Is Al-Qaeda Defeated? An Experts’ Debate

In Collaboration with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

With the Taliban toppled in Afghanistan, hundreds of militants killed in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, and the death of bin Laden last year, has the United States come to the end of the “War on Terror”? The New America Foundation’s National Security Studies Program and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies hosted a lively debate on October 16 on whether or not we have seen the defeat of al-Qaeda. Elizabeth Weingarten reports on highlights from the debate below:

For the sake of his career, Peter Bergen would have good reason to argue that al-Qaeda still poses a serious threat to the United States. Bergen, the director of New America’s National Security Studies Program, produced the first television interview with Osama bin Laden in 1997, and has written four books on the terrorist organization since the first World Trade Center attack in 1993. “I’ve devoted 20 years of my life to [this problem],” he told the audience at a New America debate on whether al-Qaeda has been defeated. “I feel like a Sovietologist in 1989, and that’s a good feeling.”

Bergen teamed up with Thomas Lynch III, a retired U.S. Army Colonel and research fellow at the National Defense University to argue for the motion that al-Qaeda is defeated. They claimed that bin Laden’s al-Qaeda has failed to achieve its two central goals since 9/11: driving Westerners from the Middle East and launching catastrophic and debilitating attacks on the U.S. The group failed in its last five attempted attacks, and the U.S. has a stronger presence than ever in the region. Critically, it’s al-Qaeda specifically – and not all jihadism – that has suffered a strategic defeat. The group no longer has the power it once did to lure recruits and execute ruinous attacks.

Bill Roggio and Thomas Joscelyn, both senior fellows at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, battled Bergen and Lynch by arguing that al-Qaeda may have suffered some serious setbacks, but it’s a resilient and adaptive organization that still poses a lethal threat. Al Qaeda’s inability to successfully attack America doesn’t mean the threat has dissipated. In fact, the threat against the West – and Muslims in the Middle East - may be rising: al-Qaeda affiliates are taking advantage of a security void in countries weakened by Arab Spring protests – like Yemen and Syria.

Debate moderator Reuel Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, defined down what winning the debate meant at the outset: changing the most minds. The debate audience voted as they entered and exited the forum, so the team that reversed the most opinions on the motion “ al-Qaeda is defeated,” would be crowned.    

It was close. An overwhelming majority of the audience came in believing that al-Qaeda was not defeated. Still, the team for the motion pulled five supporters to its side by the end, while the ‘against’ team swayed four.

At the beginning of the debate, the participants touched on a semantic dilemma that they continued to wrestle throughout: What conditions constitute a threat – and how should we define defeat?

On the question of the al-Qaeda threat, Bergen offered these statistics: In the United States, an individual is 10 times more likely to be killed by a dog than a jihadi terrorist, and 300 people each year are killed by drowning in their bathtubs. We don’t have irrational fears of either drowning in bathtubs or death by dogs, Bergen noted, so we shouldn’t exaggerate the jihadi threat, either.

“Dogs and bathtubs, they don’t plot attacks to kill Americans and to kill Muslims the way al-Qaeda does,” Roggio fired back. “This may be a low point in al-Qaeda’s operations, but this doesn’t mean they’re defeated.”  

Bergen suggested that part of the reason the group has been unable to successfully attack us – and is thus strategically dead – is that we’re better prepared today to counter threats.  Since 9/11, we’ve built a strong National Counterterrorism Center and Department of Homeland Security. U.S. forces execute dozens of missions against al-Qaeda in the region each week.

Roggio saw the continued special operations missions (forces have launched more than 50 raids against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan so far this year, he said) as evidence of a still potent threat. And if the security situation in Afghanistan worsens after U.S. forces withdraw in 2014 under President Obama’s timeline, that could bolster al-Qaeda’s regional power, he suggested.    

The key there is regional power. Both sides seemed to agree that jihadism could thrive after America withdraws its forces. But al-Qaeda’s affiliates – like groups in Iraq and the Gulf -- don’t threaten the West in any shape or form, Bergen maintained.

Not so, argued Joscelyn.  Al-Qaeda can and will reach out through its affiliates to attack us. “There’s a clear pattern, where according to the National Counterterrorism Center, according to the Obama Administration, that’s exactly what they’re trying to do,” Joscelyn said.

“Trying, trying – but not succeeding,” stressed Bergen.

“But trying doesn’t mean that the threat is gone,” Joscelyn said.

“To win World War II, it wasn’t necessary to kill every Nazi,” Bergen said. “With jiahdis roaming the earth, the idea [ from the other side] is we haven’t won if they are still there.”

But that was a different situation, Joscelyn countered later. True, we didn’t have to kill every Nazi to win World War II, “however the German government and the Japanese government did cease attacks on us. That’s what victory and defeat looks like. [Al-Qaeda] may be hurt and they may have suffered strategic setbacks, but they’re adapting their operations to continue to achieve their goals.”

Later, the debaters took questions from the audience. A journalist from the Washington Times posed a question about the impact of the Arab Spring’s toppling of secular dictators on al-Qaeda.

“The reason that al-Qaeda and groups like it came to exist was because of authoritarian regimes,” Bergen said, referring to former leaders like Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The Arab Spring took “ the wind out of these groups” by carving out “ more political space for Islamist ideas that aren’t tied to violence…the tide is turning against these groups because conditions that created them are going away.”

Joscelyn agreed that the Arab Spring offered hope for the ultimate defeat of al-Qaeda and its affiliate organizations. “ But the problem is that in the short-term, they can exploit security vacuums that have been left behind. We can’t say, it’s all over, and pack our bags and go home today,” he said.

The exchange concluded on an ominous note from Roggio.  This debate, he said, has narrowly defined the meaning of defeat. “A setback is not a defeat. [Al-Qaeda] is still in the game, still in the fight, and intends to be in the fight for decades.“

-Elizabeth Weingarten

Debate Results:
A very close race! The results favor Peter Bergen and Col. Thomas Lynch III, who argued that al-Qaeda has been defeated.
For the motion “Al-Qaeda is defeated”
     - Swayed five voting audience members
Against the motion “Al-Qaeda is defeated”
     - Swayed four voting audience members


For the Motion “Al-Qaeda is Defeated”
Peter Bergen
Director, National Security Studies Program, New America Foundation

Col. Thomas Lynch III
Colonel-Retired, U.S. Army
Distinguished Research Fellow, National Defense University

Against the Motion “Al-Qaeda is Defeated”
Thomas Joscelyn
Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Bill Roggio
Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Editor, Long War Journal

Reuel Gerecht
Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Event Time and Location

Tuesday, October 16, 2012 - 12:15pm - 1:45pm
New America Foundation
1899 L Street NW Suite 400
Washington, DC 20036

Event Photos

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A range of photos from this event are available on Flickr. Click on the icon at left to view or download the photos.