At the very start of the third presidential debate, the first exchange of, admittedly fairly soft, blows between President Obama and Mitt Romney came over al-Qaida, and a very specific question: is the group responsible for the 9/11 attacks stronger than four years ago?
For Romney the answer was, more or less, clear: “Is al-Qaida on the run, on its heels? No.”
For Obama, “al-Qaida is much weaker than it was when I came into office, and they don’t have the same capacities to attack the US homeland and our allies as they did four years ago”.
Both men tried to establish a definition of al-Qaida that suited them. For Romney, al-Qaida was sometimes the organisation founded by Osama bin Laden and others in 1988, sometimes all those now influenced by its ideology. So he referred to both “this radical violent extremism which is … really not on the run” and to an apparently single “group that is now involved in 10 or 12 countries” which “presents an enormous threat”.
Obama preferred to keep to a more narrow definition of al-Qaida – perhaps natural for the man who ordered the operation that killed Bin Laden and for whom any broader surge in extremism would, especially after the death of the US ambassador to Libya in Benghazi, be an indictment of his record.
For the president, al-Qaida meant the senior leadership of the group, based mainly in Pakistan.
Obama’s claim that the hardcore leadership of al-Qaida has been decimated is fair. Senior British intelligence officials talk of the upper and even middle ranks of the organisation being “hollowed out”. Their US, European and Middle Eastern counterparts largely concur: almost all the main players of a decade ago are dead or detained.
The use of drones by Obama has had a huge impact, as has the death of Bin Laden. The broad consensus among analysts is that a threat from “hardcore al-Qaida” still remains but it is less serious than in 2008 – and very much less serious than it was in 2004 or 2005. There was no credible threat detected to the London Olympics, for example, something that would have seemed extraordinary only a short time ago.
One element that influences the debate in the US is that it is the only western nation that has seen increased levels of militant activity, homegrown and otherwise, over recent years. Though most attackers have shown dubious commitment and limited competence there have been important exceptions.
As for the geographic spread, Romney’s claim that there is a single group “now involved in 10 or 12 countries” fails on an important technicality. There are violent extremist Islamic groups – plural – involved in, at the very least, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Yemen, Jordan, Syria, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, India, Indonesia and other places too. But the relationship of these groups to “al-Qaida” varies dramatically. Many reject any association at all.
Romney’s use of the term “al-Qaida-like types”, a new addition to the counter-terrorist lexicon, to describe militants in Mali seemed a welcome acknowledgement of the fragmented nature of contemporary Islamic militancy in the Sahel and elsewhere but he soon reverted to “al-Qaida” running Mali however.
Elsewhere he spoke of “jihadi groups” rushing in. An irrepressible tendency to aggregate? A genuine failure to understand the phenomenon? Either way, the fair point that violent Islamic militancy, some linked to the late Bin Laden‘s group, has not gone away was partly lost in the confusion.
But how much of a threat does that disparate and fragmented phenomenon pose? It is difficult to judge, as Romney rightly admitted. Geographic spread is a crude measure. If groups have emerged in parts of north Africa and elsewhere as new opportunities have emerged in the wake of the Arab uprisings, they have also disappeared elsewhere – in Saudi Arabia and, to a great extent, in Indonesia, for example.
A militant in remote Mali is significantly less worrying then one in, say, Syria or Jordan. You could have found militants in a dozen countries back in the 1990s.
Overall, it seems difficult to substantiate the claim that Islamic militancy is still “very very strong”. Globally, polls and anecdotal evidence indicate that despite the “tumult” in the Middle East radical militancy remains attractive only to a negligible number and that popular support is still almost totally lacking outside very limited areas, and is pretty thin there too.
Al-Qaida can recruit enough people and get enough resources to survive but few security services or analysts outside government see radical Islam generally as an existential threat in the way many did in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks or the bombings in Madrid or London of 2004 and 2005.
Whether or not Obama can take as much credit as he would like for this, is another matter. The decline of the threat posed by radical violence may owe something to the tone and look he brought in 2008 and to policies pursued subsequently. It is also due to much more effective counter-terrorist capacity built up over a decade or more, however. Democracy, education, gender equality and free markets were all mentioned as weapons against extremism in the debate.
But to a great extent the continuing weakness, and tenacity, of violent extremism today is due to local factors, particularly the revulsion of communities across the Islamic world for violence when it occurs close at hand.