Seth G. Jones, author of Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qa'ida Since 9/11, is senior political scientist at Rand Corp. and former senior adviser to U.S. Special Operations Command.
Osama bin Laden was fond of recounting the following parable from the Quran to rally his followers in times of despair: A much-better-armed Christian army employed war elephants in a fearsome assault against Mecca, aspiring to destroy the Kaaba shrine, one of Islam's most sacred sites. But birds showered the Christian army with pellets of hard-baked clay, and the Arabs eventually defeated the invaders. To bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders, this demonstrated that God was on their side — even in the face of certain defeat.
Over the past decade, U.S. policymakers and pundits have repeatedly written al-Qaida's obituary. The latest surge of triumphalism came after bin Laden's killing a year ago. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta asserted that the United States was "within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaida," while President Barack Obama proclaimed, "We have put al-Qaida on a path to defeat," and academic experts churned out a new wave of books with such bullish titles as The Rise and Fall of al-Qaeda.
These declarations of victory, however, underestimate al-Qaida's continuing capacity for destruction. Far from being dead and buried, the terrorist organization is now riding a resurgent tide as its affiliates engage in an increasingly violent campaign of attacks across the Middle East and North Africa. And for all the admiration inspired by brave protesters in the streets from Damascus to Sanaa, the growing instability triggered by the Arab Spring has provided al-Qaida with fertile ground to expand its influence across the region.
Al-Qaida's bloody fingerprints are increasingly evident in the Middle East. In Iraq, where the United States has withdrawn its military forces, al-Qaida operatives staged a brazen wave of bombings in January, killing at least 132 Shiite pilgrims and wounding hundreds more. The following week in Yemen, fighters from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula seized the town of Radda, while expanding al-Qaida's control in several southern provinces. "al-Qaida has raised its flag over the citadel," a resident told Reuters.
Beyond these anecdotes, several indicators suggest that al-Qaida is growing stronger. First, the size of al-Qaida's global network has dramatically expanded since the 9/11 attacks. al-Qaida in Iraq, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and Somalia's al-Shabab have formally joined al-Qaida, and their leaders have all sworn bayat — an oath of loyalty — to bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
These al-Qaida affiliates are increasingly capable of holding territory. In Yemen, for example, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has exploited a government leadership crisis and multiple insurgencies to cement control in several provinces along the Gulf of Aden. al-Qaida's affiliates in Somalia and Iraq also appear to be maintaining a foothold where there are weak governments, with al-Shabab in Kismayo and southern parts of Somalia, and al-Qaida in Iraq in Baghdad, Diyala, and Salah ad Din provinces, among others.
The number of attacks by al-Qaida and its affiliates is also on the rise, even since bin Laden's death. Al-Qaida in Iraq, for instance, has conducted more than 200 attacks and killed more than a thousand Iraqis since the bin Laden raid, a jump from the previous year. And despite the group's violent legacy, popular support for al-Qaida remains fairly high in countries such as Nigeria and Egypt, though it has steadily declined in others. If this is what the brink of defeat looks like, I'd hate to see success.