Destroying Al Qaeda

America’s Greatest National Security Accomplishment in Decades

The Al Qaeda network is reeling. The time has come to sharpen U.S. national security infrastructure to meet the challenges of the 21st century, write Brian Katulis and Peter Juul.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta delivers a speech to Georgetown University students and faculty on leadership and public service in Washington, Wednesday, February 6, 2013. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta delivers a speech to Georgetown University students and faculty on leadership and public service in Washington, Wednesday, February 6, 2013. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The Al Qaeda network over the past three years suffered its greatest losses since the United States and its allies evicted the terrorist organization from Afghanistan in 2001. Consider the achievements:

  • President Barack Obama ordered a daring and risky Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011, and dozens of other senior Al Qaeda leaders have met their demise since President Obama took office.
  • This summer, U.S. drones killed Ilyas Kashmiri, commander of Al Qaeda’s Pakistan operation, and Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, Al Qaeda’s top operational planner who became the organization’s number two after bin Laden’s death.
  • Anwar al-Awlaki, a key member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula believed to be responsible for organizing a number of attempted attacks against the United States, was killed in another drone strike in Yemen at the end of September.

Hardly a week goes by without some key figure in the Al Qaeda network and its affiliates being targeted in a range of actions, including drone strikes as well as other actions by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies to prevent attacks and degrade the Al Qaeda network. The damage done to Al Qaeda by the Obama administration represents America’s greatest national security success since the fall of the Soviet Union and the peaceful integration of Eastern European countries in the 1990s.

Given these major successes, it’s no wonder U.S. officials, including former CIA Director and current Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, are declaring that the United States is “within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda.” As President Obama put it in June, the United States has “put al Qaeda on a path to defeat, and we will not relent until the job is done.”

Finishing the job will require the United States to do two things. First, we should remain as assertive as possible in our approach to keep the United States safe from terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda. Second, we need to streamline our approach to national security, cutting efforts and programs that aren’t vital to keeping America safe. The Obama administration has already corrected the most costly mistake of the previous administration by winding down the war in Iraq. But the United States won’t be able to say the job is done when it comes to defeating Al Qaeda until we cut the unnecessary waste and excess that has built up in our national security infrastructure over the past 10 years.

Reforming U.S. national security institutions to meet the challenges of the coming post-Al Qaeda world

The United States had two main reactions to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We launched a military campaign in Afghanistan and we created new agencies and capacities to deal with the threat posed by Al Qaeda. In addition, the United States committed a colossal unforced error in its response to those attacks—the Iraq War—which was purportedly justified on the grounds that “9/11 changed everything” but in reality was an unnecessary distraction that diverted resources and attention while creating a new rallying cry for Al Qaeda.

Some of the new agencies and capacities created within the U.S. government helped provide the tools President Obama has used to deliver crushing blows to the Al Qaeda network. But the response to 9/11 also had the downside of creating a duplicative counterterrorism and homeland security bureaucracy involving 1,271 government agencies and 1,931 private companies, with 854,000 people holding top-secret security clearances—enough to fill a city like Indianapolis or Jacksonville. According to reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin, “at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11.”

This new bureaucracy is reportedly highly duplicative. Gen. John Custer, head of the Army’s intelligence school and former director of intelligence for Central Command, asked Priest and Arkin rhetorically, “Who orchestrates what is produced [by the new counterterrorism bureaucracy] so that everybody doesn’t produce the same thing?”

Indeed, this bureaucracy has grown so large that it threatens to overwhelm the system it is supposed to serve. Part of the reason for this problem is that the United States lacks objective measurements on how it is doing in this fight against Al Qaeda—it cannot adequately assess the performance of its large new bureaucracy.

In 2003 then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld complained that “we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror.” Eight years later, the United States remains in the dark in spite of the impressive achievements the Obama administration has notched against Al Qaeda central in Pakistan this year. It remains unclear what metrics or standards are necessary to determine the success or failure of America’s campaign against Al Qaeda, or even if such metrics are possible.

Developing a set of metrics to judge the progress of our campaign against Al Qaeda is a daunting task. Al Qaeda’s self-proclaimed constituency—the global Muslim population—is too large and too diverse in its interests to make Al Qaeda’s standing within it a key data point. And Al Qaeda’s goal of a worldwide theocracy was never popular to begin with. Academics continue to disagree on the criteria for determining an individual’s propensity for terrorism. And our own counterterrorism agencies and contractors face the temptation to “grade their own homework” and provide data that validate their own institutional interests.

But with Al Qaeda’s leadership dead, imprisoned, or on the run; with worldwide revulsion against its brutal methods; and with the terrorist network’s delusional political cause becoming more and more out of touch with every passing year, the time has come to move beyond the campaign-by-campaign assessments and examine the broader fight.

More than 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, the United States has started to turn the corner on addressing the threats posed by Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Those threats will never be fully eradicated—and it is sadly probable that the United States will experience another terror attack on the homeland given the dispersed nature of this threat. And in the eight years after the 9/11 attacks from 2001–2009, the United States mounted an expensive military campaign around the world, making costly strategic errors such as the Iraq War.

Since 2009, however, the Obama administration recalibrated this fight to make it more focused and targeted. It corrected many of the mistakes made by the Bush administration, including winding down U.S. military involvement in the Iraq War and shifting resources to neglected fronts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And it pursued a more aggressive approach against Al Qaeda militants, using tactics such as drone strikes that have had a devastating impact. We now require a more complete review than has been done thus far.

Just as President Obama has achieved successes against Al Qaeda by ending the ill-conceived war in Iraq and refocusing on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the U.S. government should streamline its counterterrorism and homeland security bureaucracy. A more efficient and cost-effective system should replace the plethora of agencies and contractors that have sprouted since 9/11. Streamlining the bureaucracy and removing its unnecessary, costly, and counterproductive elements will be a difficult but necessary task as the United States aims to capitalize on its recent victories against Al Qaeda.

In the coming years the United States will need to remain vigilant and develop resilience against future terrorist attacks, but the major successes the Obama administration has achieved in the fight against Al Qaeda and its affiliates around the world represents the greatest national security accomplishment America has had in decades. The devastating impact these policies had on Al Qaeda also opens the door to a new chapter: an even more targeted and less costly approach to national security.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst with the National Security team at the Center.

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow

Peter Juul

Former Senior Policy Analyst