Al-Qaeda Crippled But Resilient

Former U.S. counterterrorism coordinator Henry A. Crumpton says al-Qaeda is still capable of inspiring attacks.

August 17, 2006

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Terrorism and Counterterrorism

United States

In the five years since September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has spent more than $400 billion on its global war on terrorism, concentrating on state sponsors of terrorism and terror groups. Al-Qaeda, the group responsible for the 9/11 attacks, has receded somewhat from view but it remains the government’s top terrorist concern, says the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, Henry A. Crumpton.

Crumpton says al-Qaeda has been significantly degraded through U.S. and international efforts and its two leading figures are under "great stress." But it remains a resilient presence near the Afghan-Pakistani border region, Crumpton says, and has inspired an increasingly sophisticated group of affiliates who are still striving to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

What is al-Qaeda today?

Al-Qaeda aspires to have the type of global network it did prior to 9/11. It works toward that end but because of our partnerships around the world, because of our collective operational success, al-Qaeda is crippled and is certainly not the organization it was. Al-Qaeda, however, has placed extra emphasis on inspiring other groups and trying to mobilize other groups and when and where possible, establishing links to these affiliated networks to have them help drive their agenda.

You said in Senate testimony in June that the two top leaders—Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri—had become isolated in some ways. Is that the case? Does it matter for how the group functions?

They’re under great stress. We’re convinced of that and I think that’s captured in the letter that Zawahiri sent to [Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi in Iraq where he was complaining about the lack of funds and trying to reestablish some degree of control over the Zarqawi network inside Iraq. That’s the best public example I can refer to that underscores how constrained they are. Now they still have some communications links. They are able to release videos and audio, of course, and able sometimes, I think with great difficulty, to transmit some of their specific messages, operational messages, but yes they are under a great pressure and our mission of course, working with our partners in the region, is to keep that pressure on to further diminish those links.

The name has been brought up as an inspiration for the British airliner plot. Is there anything fresh on that front, in terms of affirming ties to al-Qaeda?

No, and as you can understand I’m not going to comment on an ongoing investigation given the sensitivity but the British working with us and others are working diligently and I think we’ll have a better view in the coming weeks of what kind of links to al-Qaeda there might be there.

Al-Qaeda or not, what does this plot at this point tell you about the capabilities of terrorists today?

It underscores one of the major trends that we outlined in the Country Reports on Terrorism for 2005, and that was the growing sophistication of the enemy. You look at their planning, you look at their technical sophistication. Unfortunately that’s going to be a trend that continues and will challenge us on several levels.

In this particular case, there are links to Pakistan that continue. Is the Bush Administration alarmed about this persistence in Pakistan of an element that is able to operate pretty effectively?

We’re working very closely with President Musharraf and his government to address these issues. As you know, Musharraf has been the target of two assassination attempts and I think that working together we can continue to make progress. And Pakistan, of course, has captured—with our assistance and others—has captured hundreds of al-Qaeda operatives over the years and provided a wealth of intelligence. Yet in that part of the world, especially along that border area, a resilient enemy resides and we have to keep working it.

Does it appear as if in the northwestern territories of Pakistan there has been this transplanting of al-Qaeda/Taliban elements?

You see some operational activity, of course, along the border inside Afghanistan and inside Pakistan. The Pakistanis and the Afghans are working with us and I think that we’ll have continued degrees of success in that area but it’s a tough part of the world, and not just in physical, geographical terms but in terms of culture and heritage. There are some proud people in there and we have to not forget that and understand that terrain in terms of the social, political, and cultural aspects.

Where would you rank that part of the world on the scale of terrorist concerns?

Well, because you have elements of al-Qaeda leadership there, I think it’s very important but you look at Iranian sponsorship of terrorism, whether you’re talking about Hezbollah or some of the Shia militia groups in Iraq. That’s a major source of concern and then bear in mind you’ve got areas of concern in Southeast Asia, in parts of the Philippines and you’ve got concern in Colombia with the FARC [the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia]. This is not only about the Middle East or Central Asia. Terrorism is a global problem with several different groups using terrorism as a tactic.

So are you not of a mind to rank the terror concerns at this point?

If you look at terrorist concerns, al-Qaeda is still at the top, obviously, because of their history, because of their intent, and because of the affiliated groups and the growing sophistication of al-Qaeda and these affiliated groups. You look at that and in combination with their intention to attack soft civilian targets around the world and not just American and Western but Muslim targets and others and that’s clearly number one.

There have been some links drawn between al-Qaeda and Hezbollah through the years. What can you say about such links?

You see two terrorist groups with, in many ways, different political agendas, and there’s of course the religious divide, Shia-Sunni, and that is evident in some of the violence we see in Iraq today, where al-Qaeda is targeting Shia groups. But also you see a difference in terms of some of the methodologies used. They both embrace terrorism as a tactic but some of their operations are characterized by different traits.

So perhaps the difference is so fundamental it’s not an area where there’s a great concern of collaboration?

No, we don’t see the collaboration that I think you’re inferring. In fact, there’s a pretty large degree of differences I noted in terms of their agenda, in terms of their funding, in terms of how they operate. Now, they do view the United States and our allies as a common foe and you can’t rule out the possibility of some collusion at some point but there’s certainly no strategic alliance there that we see.

Does Hezbollah emerge from this conflict with Israel more dangerous, still dangerous, or degraded in some ways?

The United Nations now has a responsibility, with our support, not only to go into southern Lebanon, but to uphold the previous UN Security Council resolutions—1559 and others—to disarm Hezbollah. That’s going to be the measure of success, ultimately.

Whereas 1559 resulted in the ouster of Syrian forces, it really made very few inroads on Hezbollah disarmament. Is there anything that leads you to believe this can be easier now?

I am hopeful. I think, with international focus and with international contribution, not only to disarm Hezbollah, but to help the Lebanese people, really first and foremost, to help them rebuild, and for the Lebanese government to be able to assert its true sovereignty throughout its borders, with the Lebanese Army supported by the United Nations force, that’s going to be the answer. But realistically, we have to look at Hezbollah and measure their intent. [Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan] Nasrallah said just yesterday [August 14] there will be no disarmament so this is not going to be easy. We understand that.

Another aspect of counterterrorism that’s getting some attention is dealing with the political skills of some of these groups, Hezbollah, for example. Can you refine a public diplomacy tool to counter this?

Certainly that’s going to be a part of it. The president and the secretary [of state] have underscored this, Ambassador Karen Hughes is working hard to approach that and it’s part of a larger question. It’s not just political actors using terrorism as a tactic. These actors are increasingly sophisticated in how they collect intelligence, in how they subvert societies and groups, in how they use denial and deception, and also in how they, in some cases, use open warfare in addition to terrorism. And, of course, their public information campaigns can be challenging for us and so you have to look at all of those things.

The other issue, when looking at Lebanon and Pakistan, is shoring up fragile societies. Do you get a sense there’s a consensus in terms of shoring up these places like Afghanistan where havens can grow?

If you look at military, law, and enforcement or other measures, that’s critical because it keeps the enemy from attacking us, from harming our citizens and our communities. It buys us space and time. But then the more enduring constructive aspect of counterterrorism and the broader agenda the president and the secretary have outlined, with international partners being a part, that’s the enduring answer and you can’t separate these different aspects.

So both within the U.S. policy community as well as international partners, you see that effort gaining some speed?

I think there’s a growing realization [of the need to rehabilitate fragile states]—if you look at some of the countries that have pledged money to help rebuild parts of southern Lebanon—and there’s a growing realization also in Afghanistan that this isn’t a military answer, you’re going to have to have long-term economic development and education and give people opportunities. You have to not only deny safe haven to terrorist forces. You have to replace it with trusted networks and all the things that make societies viable and allow their citizens to enrich their lives.

Are you concerned that there’s been some rollback in Afghanistan where that international process has been underway for five years?

Afghanistan, especially in the south and on the eastern border, is of concern. You see an increase in violence there and an increase in the poppy production which, of course, undermines society because it leads to corruption. That just underscores the point I’ve made that you’ve got to get in there. The international community has to get in there and move forward quickly and help with the development.

Do you have evidence that terror groups are still trying actively to acquire various forms of WMD?

Absolutely.

Any anecdotes that could shed some light on that?

All I could offer you are some historical public record references. One of the most chilling is the al-Qaeda operative who’s currently in Malaysian detention—[Yazid] Sufaat. He was tasked to develop and deploy a biological weapon in Southeast Asia and obviously I can’t talk about some of the ongoing intelligence operations and investigations but yes, multiple terrorist groups are searching for weapons of mass destruction.

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