Have we well and truly entered the "post-al-Qaeda era"? A year after Osama Bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. commandos, some experts and commentators are taking to the idea that the threat which preoccupied U.S. foreign policy for the past decade is now all but ancient history.
This seems to be what the Obama administration believes as well. In their public pronouncements, high-ranking administration officials continue to maintain that the Bin Laden network poses a problem. But a series of tactical successes against the organization over the past year has led the White House to conclude that, as one high-ranking State Department official recently remarked to the National Journal, "the war on terror is over."
This belief, in turn, increasingly has driven administration policy. Counterterrorism operations in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan continue apace. But in foreign policy terms, the past year has seen a very public pivot away from the Middle East—and away from the war on terror. In recent months, the United States has disengaged from Iraq; announced its early withdrawal from Afghanistan; and, most recently, formally unveiled a sweeping "rebalancing" of U.S. diplomacy and military policy toward Asia.
All of that would be justified if al-Qaeda and its affiliates were truly down for the count. Yet there are clear signs that it's still far too early to close the book on the Bin Laden network.
For one thing, the organization—though diminished—remains a serious security threat. Just this week, CNN reported that documents recently uncovered from an al-Qaeda operative in Berlin have provided new clues about the organization's future plans—including the targeting of cruise liners and preparations for attacks throughout Europe. Equally significant, the documents confirm that the organization, beleaguered because of Western counterterrorism efforts, is working feverishly to regroup and adapt.
For another, al-Qaeda could soon enjoy greater room for geopolitical maneuver, thanks to the "Arab Spring." The widespread instability that has roiled the greater Middle East over the past year-and-a-half has given the organization and its affiliates new opportunities to regroup and expand. Some parts of the region, like conflict-riven Yemen and North Africa's lawless Sahel region, remain fertile operating environments for the Bin Laden network's regional franchises. Others, like the Sinai region separating Israel and Egypt, have emerged as potential new outposts for terrorist activity as governance has receded.
True, after years of scorched earth sectarian warfare, the organization remains deeply unpopular. According to the most recent Pew Research Center poll, significant majorities throughout the Muslim world continue to view al-Qaeda in a negative light. But the rise of Islamist politics in places like Egypt and Libya has given al-Qaeda's leaders at least some reason to hope that they can still reverse their declining relevance and once again capture the imagination of regional publics.
It's a truism of warfare that, when it comes to formulating strategy, the enemy also gets a vote. Al-Qaeda's war on the West undoubtedly has seen better days. But, a year after Bin Laden's demise, it remains a dogged and dangerous adversary, and the threat that it poses is far from a thing of the past. For us to behave as if it was would be a costly mistake.