The either-or nature of the question misses the point. The reality is that we face BOTH a decentralized Al Qaeda manifested by self-radicalized or homegrown "bunches of guys" for whom the al Qaeda name is just a brand or symbol AND a centralized, core al Qaeda group which is still plotting and planning attacks from the Afghan/Pakistan frontier.
Is Osama bin Laden still relevant? Or rather, is the threat more from a reconstituted, centralized Al Qaeda, or from more local groups radicalized by preachers or outside forces (see recent arguments between Marc Sageman and Bruce Hoffman). Also interesting to consider is how centralized Al Qaeda was before September 11, looking at the scope of its attacks both prior to and after September 11. Which is more dangerous, a decentralized Al Qaeda operating as a symbol, or a centralized Al Qaeda still ordering attacks from a mountain redoubt?
Gregory offers a thoughtful analysis and has bravely baited the rest of us to respond, so I'll take the bait. First, and just FYI, my "not unrelated" comment was intended to link energy and the economy, not the economy and terrorism.
Before we fall into a consensus that terrorism remains at (or very near) the top of the heap, permit me to play contrarian among these terrorism experts.Matt advises we face a "three-fold threat", namely: 1) core al-Q, 2) 'franchise' players like al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and 3) a motley gaggle of some 300 groups (most of them Sunni, reportedly) that have "less direct ties to al-Qaeda", per Matt.
I agree with Matt Levitt and others that tackling the threat of Al Qaeda terrorism should remain a top-tier national security priority. In the coming decades more significant challenges will no doubt emerge, most important of which will be managing the rise of China. And in the nearer term the Iran nuclear standoff will continue to loom large.
As Matt indicates, the threats are real and potentially catastrophic should AQ or its affiliates get a hold of weapons of mass destruction. The issue for me is less the high priority being placed on countering the threat than the manner in which we are countering it:
I do not think we are concentrating too much on terrorism, it legitimately belongs at the very top of the list of national security threats we face today. True, the nature of the transnational threats facing the world today is far different than the ones the U.S. and its allies faced on 9/11. But al-Qaeda itself remains a formidable opponent, with a resurgent core in Northwest Pakistan and affiliates and homegrown cells pose a growing threat as well.
Is there a chance that we are concentrating too much on terrorism? If so, how have some of the policy trade-offs manifested themselves? Should the next president de-emphasize terrorism relative to other national security priorities?
Thanks, Matt, for following this thread.On the definition issue, at risk of stating the obvious, the distinction between "terrorists" and "freedom fighters" is given weight it doesn't deserve because of the inherently political nature of any discussion of who is and who isn't a terrorist. The fact that the US only recently took Nelson Mandela off of its terrorist list is a reminder of this.