This meeting, jointly sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center's Division of International Security Studies, the U.S. Army's Eisenhower National Security Series, and Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies was part of an ongoing series on terrorism and homeland security.
Bruce Hoffman observed that 5 years ago, 19 terrorists hijacked 4 jets and changed the course of history. Any doubt that the threat to commercial aviation has receded was shattered in August 2006 when an alleged plot to blow up 10 planes over the Atlantic was foiled in Britain – a stark reminder of our continuing vulnerability to a massive terrorist attack.
Hoffman argued that just as we underestimated the threat posed by Al Qaeda five years ago, so too do we risk making that same mistake today. The conventional wisdom is that Al Qaeda is a broken and beaten organization, incapable of mounting further attacks on its own, and that it has devolved operational authority to its various affiliates or to organically-produced, homegrown terrorist entities. Nothing could be further from the truth, stated Hoffman. In fact, Al Qaeda is "on the march": it has regrouped and reorganized from the setbacks meted out by the United States and its allies after 9/11, when it lost its operational base in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Al Qaeda is functioning just as Osama bin Laden intended – as both an inspiration and an organization. According to Hoffman, it is simultaneously capable of summoning a broad universe of like-minded extremists to violence, while still providing guidance and assistance for more spectacular terrorist operations.
Al Qaeda continues to exercise its core operational and command-and-control capabilities to direct terrorist attacks. These perhaps include the recently thwarted airline bombings, the 7/7 suicide bombings that occurred in London in July 2005, and the foiled 2004 plot to stage simultaneous suicide attacks on economic targets in lower Manhattan, New Jersey, and Washington, DC.
The threat posed by Al Qaeda is dynamic and evolutionary: the organization has proved adept at adapting and adjusting its tactics and modus operandi to obviate even our most consequential countermeasures. Accordingly, Hoffman questioned, how can the U.S. and western governments ensure that our assessments and analyses are anchored firmly to sound, empirical judgment and are not blinded by either conjecture, mirror-imaging, politically partisan prisms, or wishful thinking?
The 7/7 London bombings encapsulate precisely the threat posed by Al Qaeda today. The challenge is not entirely one of homegrown radicalization, but of deliberate subversion as well. Two of the perpetrators of the 7/7 attack spent time at Pakistani Jihadi camps and may have been in Afghanistan prior to 2000. Al Qaeda involvement in the 7/7 suicide bombings is now clear. The martyrdom tapes for two of the bombers were produced by Al Qaeda's active media arm. Hoffman argued that the primary focus on radicalization is misplaced: the ring leader of 7/7 was already radicalized and functioning as an Al Qaeda agent. More important is the recruitment of the cell and the preparation for the attack. The immense difficulties and vast uncertainties of countering this adversary are underscored by the threat's dimensions. For example, none of the individuals involved in 7/7 had previously been identified as potential terrorists. Hoffman concluded that the eroding divide between domestic and international terrorism underscores the importance of multinational cooperation in meeting this long-term challenge.