No, Al Qaeda never went away

Ready for a “where were you when…?”  question?  I launched my first book last week in Ottawa and my host, the CBC’s Hannah Thibedeau, asked me what my favourite part of ‘An end to the war on terrorism‘ was.  She had warned me she was going to throw that one at me so I had time to think about it.  My response: the first two pages of the introduction (you can read that and more by getting a hold of a copy of the book).  In summary, I wrote about where I was and what I was doing on 9/11 and how it prodded my career in intelligence for the Canadian government in a very different direction.  The exchange between Ms. Thibedeau and me led to a fascinating discussion as we then turned to those in attendance and posed them the same question (as well as “and what did that day mean to you?”).

Fast forward a decade or so: May 2, 2011.  News came in that Al Qaeda (AQ) leader Usama bin Laden had been killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan by a US Special Forces team after a ten-year search.  When the US public got wind of the operation people went delirious.  The streets filled with folks shouting ‘USA! USA!’ and I remember seeing some hanging off trees outside the White House, celebrating the demise of Public Enemy No 1.  Well done, well done Navy SEAL team!

Me? I was at work at CSIS when a colleague came into my office and said “they got him!”, ‘him’ of course referring to bin Laden. My reaction?  Meh.  Well, not as dismissive as meh perhaps – after all a dead terrorist is a good terrorist – but I do remember thinking that this was not as significant as it was being portrayed.

Before you label me a killjoy or, worse, a traitor to the West, hear me out.  I suppose if I were an American and had seen 3,000 of my fellow citizens die horribly thanks to bin Laden’s dastardly deed I would have been in a more celebratory mood, but I was curiously unfazed.  Maybe it was because it took so long to find him: that he hid for ten years despite the manhunt spearheaded by the world’s premier superpower is pretty impressive you have to admit.  But what I think gave me more pause was the fact that, as a strategic analyst I was trying to take in the bigger picture, see the forest instead of the trees if you will.  And, as such, I really didn’t think that a bin Laden-less AQ meant a big deal.  The forest was still standing, albeit with one tree less.

Well, it turns out that I was, and still am, partly right.  Despite the removal of its charismatic leader and his replacement by a far less capable deputy (Ayman al Zawahiri), AQ is still a formidable player and may in fact be poised for more mayhem and destruction.  While we all have been obsessing about Islamic State (IS) for the past half decade (and more or less written them off – check back with me in a few years to see how THAT prediction fares), AQ has been quietly minding its own business, thankful that the spotlight was on IS.

A few items of late got me thinking about this.

There are more examples but I think the point is made.

The lesson to be drawn here?  Don’t count your dead terrorist chickens before they are hatched.  Wait, that was an awful metaphor.  Better: stop seeing counter terrorism through a war lens and realise that countering a very complex phenomenon will require very complex strategies.  As Mark Twain would  have said had he been a terrorism analyst: “the reports of terrorism’s death have been greatly exaggerated”.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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