Every dismissive assumption made about al Qaeda before the September 11 terrorist tragedy was wrong. So is almost every assumption made about the terrorist organization today. Al Qaeda remains the most dangerous international security threat to both the Western and Islamic worlds.
Listen to some of the pundits and one might think that al Qaeda has been reduced to a "soft" organization, its members pursued relentlessly by Western intelligence agencies. However, the reality is that Osama bin Laden has not been driven underground, or lost touch with his organization.
Al Qaeda has not gone to sleep, nor has it morphed into some kind of "ideological" or "inspirational" organization that merely encourages copycat groups. The group's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued 15 major speeches in 2006 on audio or videotape. These discourses dealt with such subjects as how al Qaeda should approach Iraq following the departure of US troops; how the conflict in Somalia should be waged; and the need for a new terrorism offensive in Europe. This is not someone who has lost touch with his base, but someone who weighs his words carefully -- like a general preparing his troops for battle.
In 2007, al Qaeda will continue to expand its original core aims of trying to discredit Western values, promoting regime-change in the Muslim world, and expanding its base of supporters and operatives. The grand strategic objective remains unaltered: the establishment of an Islamic caliphate under al Qaeda's philosophical and spiritual direction.
Al Qaeda has proven quite skillful at propaganda, churning out promotional DVDs that are swaying opinion in the Muslim world. A major question in the coming year is whether Muslim governments, as well as Washington and London, have the political will and/or capability to counter the al Qaeda DVD propaganda initiative, spreading an anti-al-Qaeda message that offers some hope for a better life to young, unemployed Muslims?
Before the September 11 tragedy, al Qaeda maintained a presence only in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Today, the organization once again has emerged as a major threat in both these countries, but it also has established itself in Iraq, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. In addition, al Qaeda operatives are active on the European mainland.
In Iraq, al Qaeda operatives started from scratch after the 2003 US-led invasion and are now able to attract volunteers from around the world to fight and die there for the cause. Iraq has become a training ground, as well as a recruitment poster.
Turning to Afghanistan, al Qaeda and its Taliban allies have largely restored combat capabilities that were destroyed by the US-led anti-terrorist coalition in late 2001. The Taliban, for example, demonstrated last summer that it was capable of mobilizing roughly 8,000 fighters in a military operation.
US and British intelligence estimate that there are less than 100 hardcore Arab al Qaeda militants in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region, who have helped revive the Taliban. These Arabs include financiers, fund raisers and dealers who can get the best price for Taliban-produced heroin in Dubai or Teheran. They also include explosives experts and techie wizards, who teach the latest in undetectable communications.
This handful of Arab operatives, from their base in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands, have additionally helped rebuild a global terrorist network capable of luring and training British and French Muslims, as well as sending Taliban militants to Iraq to gain experience. These Arabs work as an organized strategic team, but they are self-sufficient, possessing enough operational initiative to pursue their own tactics.
The Taliban movement, meanwhile, is re-conquering lost territory in Afghanistan. At the same time, Pakistan's border provinces have been turned into major logistic and training hubs for al Qaeda. President Pervez Musharraf's administration long ago gave up pursuit of bin Laden, while Pakistani intelligence and security services allow the Taliban to raise money, arms and recruits in Pakistan.
The most carefully nurtured al Qaeda cells are those in Europe. Media savvy al Qaeda operatives know that one blast in Paris or London is equal to 10 in Riyadh or Delhi. They are targeting estranged Muslim youth, who are the product of three decades of failed integrationist policies by European governments. If Europe denies them the chance of realizing their aspirations, these disillusioned young Muslims will be increasingly inclined to attempt the creation of an alternate global community, one connected to al Qaeda.
The al Qaeda attack on London's underground in 2005 and the Heathrow plane plot last year had their origins in Pakistan. MI5 Director General Eliza Manningham-Buller says that of the 1,600 militants and 200 networks it is monitoring, a "substantial" number have connections to Pakistan.
Al Qaeda's revival is also related to the inability of the United States to provide for stability in either Afghanistan or Iraq in the aftermath of the invasions of those two countries. US policy failures in the Middle East have likewise fueled rage against Washington across the Muslim world.
In 2001, there was no civilizational conflict between Islam and the West. The September 11 tragedy was generally viewed as the work of a fanatical band of terrorists. Today, the danger of civilizational conflict is very real. And the threat doesn't just involve the potential clash between the Western and Islamic worlds; there additionally exists a danger of a clash within the Islamic world, pitting Sunni against Shi'a.
Ahmed Rashid is a journalist and the author of "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia" and "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia."