Reassessing the State of Al-Qaida

Last fall, Atlantic Monthly correspondent James Fallows suggested that the U.S. was in a position of strength against al-Qaida. But a new intelligence assessment concludes that al-Qaida is stronger than it has been in several years. Fallows revisits his earlier assessment.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Last September, we spoke with Atlantic Monthly correspondent James Fallows after his article entitled "Declaring Victory" was published. It outlined all the things that had gone wrong for al-Qaida and suggested that the U.S. was in a position to gain the upper hand by claiming victory and by altering its reactions to the terrorist group's threats.

So this past week, when a new intelligence assessment concluded that al-Qaida is stronger than it has been in several years and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff expressed a gut feeling that the U.S. faces a heightened risk of attack by al-Qaida this summer, we decided to get back in touch with James Fallows to find out if his earlier recommendations on al-Qaida still stand. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (Correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly): Thank you very much, Liane.

HANSEN: In that September article, you wrote that al-Qaida's hopes for fundamentally harming the United States now rest less on what it can do itself than on what it can trick, tempt or goad us - the United States - into doing; its destiny is no longer in its own hands. Do you think that theory still holds?

Mr. FALLOWS: Yes. I think the logic of dealing with terrorism both historically and over the last, you know, six years has been that the immediate damage the terrorists can do, even to the extreme case of the 9/11 assault in New York and Washington is usually less than what they can provoke, in the reaction of the target country. And I think most people in this field feel that it's almost impossible to have the surprise attack the United States suffered six years ago just because it couldn't be a surprise anymore.

But even if, as most people assume, there will be some ongoing attacks for many years into the future, the real question is what that evokes in the target country. Can it lead them to self-destructive acts of foreign policy? Of impeding their own economy? Doing all the other things which terrorists are trying to evoke from their victims?

HANSEN: Has al-Qaida been successful in tricking the United States into what it wants it to do?

Mr. FALLOWS: Well, the logic that Osama bin Laden laid out before these attacks - as revealed in documents that are captured afterwards - was that his goal was to provoke the United States into a confrontation with the Islamic world. He thought that was going to happen in Afghanistan. It seems to have happened in Iraq instead. And I think that every time that President Bush and his administration mention they are fighting al-Qaida - which is their shorthand for al-Qaida in Iraq - they're talking about a group that simply didn't exist before the United States went into Iraq.

So if the object was, number one, to estrange the United States from its normal allies and the rest of the Islamic world as a whole and to impose on the United States costs - emotional, psychological, financial and all the rest, the initial attacks have been effective in that way.

HANSEN: What do you make of Secretary Chertoff's gut feeling? I mean, are there legitimate concerns that al-Qaida is resurgent?

Mr. FALLOWS: I think two things are simultaneously true. It's true that the United States, western European countries, others will - for the very long term - face the risk of attacks. This is going to be a fact of our lives, as it has been a fact of British life and of French life for a very long time. So that is true. And so, if Secretary Chertoff is saying, you know, there's information about attacks, he probably has some reason to say that.

On the other hand, most of the people who've written about sort of the strategy of terrorism say that the worst thing that a country can do is to sort of subject itself to formless anxiety, formless fear - of overreacting. There probably will be people who die in the United States from some sort of assault as there will be from murders and from school shootings and from domestic terrorism and from all other sort of things. And the question is to keep this in proportion and not inflict unnecessary damage upon ourselves.

And when you had the leader of Homeland Security saying that he just has a gut felling that things could happen, it's like the old days of the crawl across the TV screen of, you know, be alert. There's just general menace. That is the desired goal of people who want to attack the United States and as they used to put it, you know, the terrorists will have won if people end up having this kind of just all present but not connecting to anything - in specific, anxiety.

HANSEN: What about this assessment that al-Qaida has basically regrouped? I mean is al-Qaida as weakened as you said it was 10 months ago?

Mr. FALLOWS: As best I can gather from some distance, in all the time since the response the United States made in Afghanistan after 9/11, the leadership of al-Qaida has basically been on the run. And then the last six years, they've not been able, ever, to operate as easily as they did in the 10 years before 9/11, when they could plot more or less with impunity because people didn't know this was underway.

It is natural and part of the analysis that many people have done, which that is that over time these networks would reconstitute themselves. It would be the case that lots of local groups would spring up, you know, in England, in Indonesia, perhaps even in the United States, in Canada - and that some tendrils would reform. That leadership would find some way to reconstitute itself. So I think if it proves that the top leadership of al-Qaida having survived this long has found some way to get back in business that would be predictable rather than surprising - and it is another reason why it's unfortunate the United States did not go relentlessly after the al-Qaida leadership for the first year or two after 9/11.

HANSEN: James Fallows is a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly magazine. He joined us from our Shanghai bureau. Thanks a lot.

Mr. FALLOWS: My pleasure. Thank you.

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