On a sunny spring day in 2003, President George W. Bush confidently claimed that the United States was making major progress in its war against the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Two weeks after Saddam Hussein’s regime collapsed in Iraq, Bush, basking in popular support at home, welcomed Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to his presidential retreat at Camp David, outside Washington.
Speaking on April 30, Bush said the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in Pakistan two months earlier was merely the latest in a string of arrests of top terror suspects.
“Thanks to President Musharraf’s leadership, on the Al-Qaeda front, we’ve dismantled the chief operators of Al-Qaeda," Bush said. He said it was unknown if Osama bin Laden was still alive, "but the people reporting to him, the chief operators, people like Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, are no longer a threat to the United States or Pakistan.”
New Leaders, New Attacks
In the years since, however, Al-Qaeda has brought in new leaders to replace old ones. And the terrorist network -- along with Islamist groups inspired by it -- have gone on to stage high-profile attacks around the world, from Madrid to London and Istanbul, to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Algeria.
So how is Al-Qaeda doing now, six years after 9/11?
According to Magnus Ranstorp, a leading international expert on Islamist terrorism, Al-Qaeda is now "exponentially much stronger" than before.
Ranstorp is the research director of the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College. He told RFE/RL that while the past six years have seen key successes in combating Al-Qaeda, the threat from Islamist terrorism overall has increased.
The numbers, according to the U.S. State Department, bear him out.
In its annual survey of global terrorism released in the spring, the State Department said the number of terrorist attacks worldwide shot up 25 percent in 2006. It said 14,000 attacks took place in 2006, mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan. These attacks claimed more than 20,000 lives -- two-thirds of them in Iraq.
That is 3,000 more attacks than in 2005 and 5,800 more deaths.
Ranstorp, like many analysts, believes the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have served as a major recruiting tool for Islamic militants. The effect, he says, has been growing support for Al-Qaeda and similar groups across the Islamic world and in Europe, where millions of Muslims live.
He cites two recent examples. Earlier this week, in Algeria, more than 50 people were killed in suicide bombings for which Al-Qaeda's North African wing claimed responsibility. In Lebanon, a standoff with the Al-Qaeda-inspired Fatah al-Islam group claimed more than 300 lives before the Lebanese Army prevailed this month.
“In the region itself, in the Middle East, it’s getting more complex, turbulent. Iraq is continuing to provide a magnet for Al-Qaeda sources," Ranstorp said. "We have other groups, as we saw in Lebanon. Fatah al-Islam is indicative of the fact that there are still local groups that are making their presence felt. In Algeria, we recently had a new reorganization of Al-Qaeda in North Africa that’s becoming more assertive.”
No 'Strategic' Strikes
However, Ranstorp notes that arrests of Al-Qaeda leaders, combined with massive improvements in Western governments’ security measures, have obstructed the terrorist group’s overall ability to launch major “strategic” attacks.
In particular, he believes security improvements in the United States have made it much harder for terrorists to pull off a spectacular strike there, as they did on 9/11.
With the arrests of Al-Qaeda leaders, "We actually decapitated the ability of Al-Qaeda’s operational leadership to at least mount or try to mount large-scale strategic strikes. To that extent, we know better, we have a more [refined] sense of how they make decisions, of what their network looks like,” Ranstorp said.
However, as Al-Qaeda and its sympathizers spread, Europe, with its large population of disaffected Muslim youth, remains perhaps its most vulnerable target. That threat was underscored last week when officials in both Denmark and Germany said they had thwarted plans for terrorist attacks.
But Ranstorp singles out Britain, with its large population of Muslims, many from Pakistan, as the key European target for Al-Qaeda. The London metro was hit by bombings that killed 52 people in 2005, and the analyst recalls that authorities last year said they had thwarted an attack that could have been larger than 9/11.
"In the U.K., they are discovering or foiling plots every six weeks," Ranstorp said. "Only a year ago, Europe almost had its 9/11, when there was an effort to try to take down seven aircraft through concealed explosive devices.”
Ranstorp’s own research focuses on terrorism in Europe, and he says the major policy challenge for EU governments involves preventing the disaffected youth of Europe’s 15 million to 20 million Muslims from being tempted to join Al-Qaeda and other such groups.
At the same time, Ranstorp says Islamic terrorism, in Europe and elsewhere, is often tied to groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan -- countries he calls the “vortex of terrorism.”
He believes the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan and along its border with Pakistan, where Al-Qaeda is thought to be active, was neglected for too long due to the focus on Iraq. And he says military actions that inadvertently punish civilians in Afghanistan and elsewhere could come back to haunt the U.S.-led coalition.
“If one only relies on the military muscle, then it’s not going to be viable over the long-term. It’s going to come back and bite us, in numerous ways," including undermining the work of troops who are working to build up the strength of Afghan security forces. "But of course, you're contending with a pretty big neighbor, Pakistan, who is playing all sorts of different games when it comes to security, some of them not being productive,” Ranstorp said.
Ranstorp offered no silver bullet in the fight against Al-Qaeda. But he suggested deeper international cooperation involving not only governments and the military, but also civil society, the judiciary, and police.
And that, he says, is precisely what’s been happening in the six years since 9/11.