Nearly seven years after Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda is bloodied, but not bowed – leaving it still capable of dealing a devastating blow. Al-Qaeda is a different organization than it was in 2001. Today, bin Laden is more inspirational than operational. Although he is still dangerous, for the moment, he is more of a terrorist icon than a terrorist operative. It is believed he is not directing al-Qaeda’s day-to-day terrorism operations around the world like he did before 9/11.
Al-Qaeda has long sought to recruit terrorist operatives already in place in the West and bin Laden has been especially keen to recruit converts to Islam. These new adherents can often easily overcome the challenges of racial profiling. There is a sinking sense that Islamist radicalization is catching fire in Europe, based on the increased number of plots in recent years involving homegrown terrorists there, as well as Europeans serving in violent jihad overseas. An April Europol report indicated that terrorist attacks in the EU were up almost 25 percent in 2007 and that Pakistan-based al-Qaeda groups are the main drivers of extremism and terrorism concerns in the EU.
We’ve also had terrorism attempts in the U.S., too, by “self-radicalized” people who were inspired by, but had little or no physical contact with, al-Qaeda. Terrorist cells in Ohio, Illinois, California, New York and New Jersey targeted the U.S. government, the military and critical infrastructure.
The writer is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.