WASHINGTON, Sept. 15, 2011 — Al-Qaida is a dangerous threat that must be eliminated, and its strategic defeat is within reach, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael G. Vickers said Sept. 13 at the National Defense University here.
Vickers discussed completing the destruction of al-Qaida during the conference sponsored by NDU and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Advanced Governmental Studies.
“Al-Qaida remains a very dangerous threat to the American homeland and the vanguard of the global jihadist movement,” Vickers told conference attendees. “The group, however, is under more pressure and in a more precarious position than at any time since its 2001 ejection from its safe haven in Afghanistan,” he added.
Vickers believes that al-Qaida’s senior leaders and rank-and-file members feel besieged by U.S. counterterrorism operations.
“Its senior leaders are being eliminated at a rate far faster than al-Qaida can replace them,” the undersecretary said, “and the leadership replacements the group is able to field are much less experienced and credible.”
As a practitioner engaged in policy, operations and intelligence, Vickers said that operationally dismantling al-Qaida means breaking the organization itself, and its relationship with those who support it.
“Al-Qaida was able to recover from the loss of its Afghanistan safe haven and key leaders as it initially sought sanctuary in Pakistan’s settled areas,” he said, by establishing a new safe haven in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, after 2003.
By 2005, the group carried out bombings in London and in 2006 nearly pulled off a plot to detonate liquid explosives aboard at least 10 airliners traveling from the United Kingdom to the United States and Canada, Vickers said.
“In the summer of 2008, the gloves really came off in the war with al-Qaida,” the undersecretary said, and three years of intense counterterrorism pressure have taken a toll on the terrorist group.
“It is not too much to say that the accelerated [counterterrorism] campaign that is bringing about al-Qaida’s destruction is the most precise campaign in the history of warfare,” he added.
In 2011 al-Qaida’s losses, including that of Osama bin Laden, have been devastating to the organization, Vickers said.
“Of the top nine leaders al-Qaida had on September 11, 2001, only Ayman al-Zawahiri has thus far managed to escape death or detention,” he said.
According to Vickers, al-Qaida still has a few thousand operatives, and it has broadened its reach through affiliates such as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, East African al-Qaida/al Shabaab, al-Qaida in Iraq, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and others.
Al-Qaida has established relationships with groups that provide it safe haven and the possibility to conduct joint operations, including Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan and the Haqqani network in the FATA, he said.
“Assuming sustained [counterterrorism] operations against the group, within 18 to 24 months core al-Qaida cohesion and operational capabilities could be degraded to the point that the group could fragment and exist mostly as a propaganda arm,” the undersecretary added, reducing the threat to the American homeland and moving closer to al-Qaida’s total defeat.
The national counterterrorism strategy focuses on al-Qaida, its affiliates and its adherents, Vickers said.
“It is not a war on terror but rather a war with al-Qaida. Our goal, as President Obama has stated, is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida and prevent the group’s return,” the undersecretary said. “We seek nothing less than the utter destruction of this evil that calls itself al-Qaida.”
Shaping the strategy is an increasingly deep understanding of al-Qaida’s goals, strategy and tactics, Vickers said.
Al-Qaida seeks to portray America as an enemy of the world’s Muslims, portray itself as a religious movement defending the rights of Muslims, and bleed the United States financially by drawing the nation into long, costly wars that inflame anti-American sentiment, the undersecretary said.
To destroy al-Qaida, Vickers said, the United States is taking the following steps:
— Continually reducing the nation’s own vulnerabilities and updating its defenses.
— Degrading al-Qaida’s capabilities, disrupting its operations and degrading the ability of its senior leadership to inspire, communicate with and direct the operations of affiliates and adherents.
— Denying al-Qaida any safe haven, aggressively confronting its ideology and depriving the organization of illicit financing, logistical support and online communications.
— Preventing al-Qaida from acquiring or developing weapons of mass destruction.
At the core of the U.S. operational approach to counterterrorism are intelligence and special operations capabilities that are growing in strength and numbers, Vickers said.
“With our international partners,” the undersecretary said, “we continue to deepen our global counterterrorism network [and] … we have increased our efforts to build the capacity of our international counterterrorism partners so they can take the fight to al-Qaida in their own countries.”
The strategy’s top priorities are to protect the American homeland and eliminate al-Qaida and its safe havens in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, he said.
“The Pakistan border region remains, as both President Obama and a Pakistani author recently put it, ‘the most dangerous place in the world.’” Vickers said, likening the FATA as epicenter of the “world’s worst of global jihad” to the scene in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope of a rundown cantina on the planet Tatooine frequented by the worst scoundrels in the universe.
“The continued presence of groups such as the [Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan], the Haqqani network and the Commander Nazir group, who provide al-Qaida with safe haven and make common cause with it, ensures that the FATA will almost certainly remain a principal area of U.S. counterterrorism focus well after core al-Qaida is dismantled,” the undersecretary said.
In the Arabian Peninsula the United States faces two major counterterrorism challenges, Vickers said, a direct threat by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, and substantial financial support from individuals and charities that flow from the region to al-Qaida and its affiliates.
“Taking advantage of the instability in Yemen, AQAP has significantly increased its operating space,” especially in the southern province of Abyan, he said.
U.S. counterterrorism cooperation with the government of Yemen is stronger than it has ever been, the undersecretary added, “and together we have been able to deliver several significant blows to AQAP since April.”
Somalia’s chaotic and unsettled political situation has challenged the security environment in East Africa for a generation, Vickers said.
“Al-Qaida elements in East Africa,” he said, “continue to be a primary U.S. counterterrorism focus.”
In Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, the undersecretary said, “We’ve shown al-Qaida that it will enjoy no safe haven and [we] have decimated its leadership ranks.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)