Is the United States safe enough? That is the fundamental question being asked by the public, policymakers, and members of the Obama Administration after the Boston bombing. What shape is al Qaeda in now and how does it affect those of us living in the United States?
While working at the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Counterterrorism Center as an analyst and targeting officer I focused on a loose network in Iraq that eventually grew into the al Qaeda we recognize. From my perspective, we are almost witnessing—today—the reverse engineering of al Qaeda back into its initial state in the 1990s, when U.S. officials observed the organization as a collection of independent groups with a central financier, Osama bin Laden. The current-day exception: al Qaeda has spread a central message through propaganda and a few high-profile attacks that are inspiring regional affiliates, lone-wolf individuals, and small groups that don’t necessarily wage jihad for the same reasons that bin Laden did.
ut where does that leave the American public in terms of risk of terrorist activity? The large al Qaeda franchises are bound by geographic constraints and interests and are less likely to pull off a high-profile attack similar to 9/11 than they were a decade ago. And the lone-wolf adherents of al Qaeda’s ideology are unlikely to have the training, financing, and capability to execute anything on a large scale. But is their inability to do significant damage enough to make us feel secure here at home? We have to ask what it is we are trying to protect ourselves from. Is it the dissemination of an ideology to lone-wolf actors who are not part of al Qaeda? Is it the terrorist acts themselves, acts that can be carried out by anyone of any affiliation? Is it both?