The Obama administration's warning about a possible al-Qaeda plot against American interests in the Middle East has triggered a volley of criticism back home. For those who always suspected that President Obama was somehow soft in fighting the war on terrorism, this was vindication. The Weekly Standard, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorialists all piled on, saying the President had claimed that al-Qaeda had been devastated and that the tide of war was receding, but this terrorism warning proved him wrong.
In part, the Administration has only itself to blame. The State Department issued a global travel alert for the entire month of August and explained that an attack could come anywhere. Congressmen who were briefed by Administration officials explained that although al-Qaeda's targets were cities in the Arab world and Africa, there could also be attacks in Europe or North America. (If it is a global travel alert, then it isn't really a travel alert but rather an existence alert.) So, what exactly were Westerners supposed to do for the month of August?
The Administration did the right thing in sharing its intelligence with foreign governments, alerting U.S. embassies and consulates and expanding its counterterrorism activities to disrupt any and all plots. But its public announcement had all the hallmarks of the old color-coded alerts of the Bush era--threatening enough to make people anxious yet vague enough to give them little to do about it.
On the broader question of the state of al-Qaeda, there's room for debate. Al-Qaeda Central, the organization based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is battered and broke. But the idea of al-Qaeda remains vibrant in other places--notably places where the government is extremely weak and cannot actually control territory. Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups are not flourishing in hotbeds of Islamic radicalism like Saudi Arabia. They thrive instead in Yemen, Somalia, Mali and northern Nigeria. Some of these groups have real ties to al-Qaeda and share its goals. Others, like the ones in Africa, look like local warlords using the label to burnish their brand.
So what kind of strategy should the U.S. pursue against these small groups in weak states? There are three possible paths. The first would be a full-bore counterinsurgency strategy, the kind that General David Petraeus executed in Iraq and (to a lesser degree) in Afghanistan. But does anyone think that sending thousands of U.S. troops into these countries is a smart idea? Does anyone think keeping more troops in Afghanistan would make terrorists in Mali tremble? As Michael Hayden, CIA director under George W. Bush, has pointed out, there is a delicate balance between doing too little in these countries and doing so much that you exaggerate the importance of local thugs, Americanize local grievances and create a global threat that didn't really exist.