Last year, in the heat of his campaign, President Barack Obama boasted that he had put al-Qaida “on the path to defeat.” This year, with 19 U.S. consulates and embassies closed and the State Department issuing vague warnings against travel anywhere in the world, al-Qaida suddenly seems resurgent — and as frightening as ever.
So which is it: defeated or resurgent? Neither, really.
Al-Qaida hasn't gone away, but it has changed — in a way that makes it less dangerous for Americans at home, but more dangerous for Americans who live in the Middle East and Africa.
Once it was global, but today's al-Qaida has gone local.
This month's threat against Western embassies, for example, was focused on capitals in the Middle East — especially in Yemen, where al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has been fighting to overthrow a government supported by the United States.
Other attacks by al-Qaida franchises have had a similarly parochial focus, from Mali and Somalia to Pakistan. Even in Libya, where a group loosely connected to al-Qaida attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last year, the operation appeared to stem from a local struggle for power, not a global plot directed by the heirs of Osama bin Laden.
Outside its home territories, though, al-Qaida has failed to strike successfully in the United States or Europe since the 2005 bombing of the London underground — an eight-year slump.
The organization still employs the man some U.S. officials call the world's most dangerous terrorist, Saudi-born bomb maker Ibrahim Hassan Asiri — but Asiri's plots haven't worked so far. In 2009, his underwear bomber got as far as Detroit, but the detonator failed. That same year, Asiri's brother, outfitted with a similar bomb, got as far as the palace of Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism chief — another local target — and blew himself up, but he was the only casualty in the attack.