Vickers: Al-Qaida’s Defeat is Within Reach

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)