My PolicyMic colleague Nathan Lean ends his recent piece on Al-Qaeda’s lingering lethal potency with a reference to the Lernaen Hydra - the ancient mythological beast that reportedly grew two heads for every one cut off. It is an astute reference, particularly amidst a burgeoning debate on whether Osama bin Laden’s formidable organization has died along with him.
In its 23-year history, Al-Qaeda has never faced a succession crisis until now, nor has its regional efficacy been so challenged by an Arab Spring like the one now emerging. But Lean has skillfully explained how “the Base” has morphed “into a syndicate of nebulous global networks” that continue to stage deadly attacks. So are we watching the demise or the reinvention of this organization in the aftermath of bin Laden’s death?
The question is ultimately irrelevant. The United States now has bigger beasts to fight.
“What if Pakistan became a jihadist state?” That is the question Pakistan expert and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute Bruce Riedel asks. Such a threat, Riedel argues, “is possible in a way it has never been before.” It is perhaps the worst kept secret in Washington that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), on whose ability to root out extremism in the wilds of the Northwest Frontier Province the U.S. relies, is perhaps more interested in nurturing militant groups which further Pakistan’s national interests.
U.S. intelligence officials believe Lakshar-i-Taiba, the militant group responsible for the Mumbai attacks in 2008, has been a primary recipient of ISI funding, as has the Haqqani Network, the Afghan militant group which continues to launch attacks on U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan. Not to mention the Taliban itself, which the ISI has covertly supported for years.
The ISI has played this clever, albeit lethal, game reasonably well: cooperating with the CIA in locating Al-Qaeda operatives, while cultivating a series of extremist organizations sent to do the ISI’s bidding. But despite the harsh blows these groups have dealt Pakistan’s enemies, they have also greatly undermined Pakistan’s own stability and the viability of its civilian leadership.
Instead of asking what is the current state of Al-Qaeda with bin Laden gone, the more pressing question is what happens in the event that the ISI loses control of its militant offspring?
“Such a development would pose […] the worst possible nightmare for the United States in the 21st century,” says Riedel. “Imagine a jihadist state with the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal in the world.”
The Al-Qaeda franchises will remain a persistent threat to the U.S. and global security on the whole, as Lean rightfully argues. But so long as the intelligence community remains vigilant and the U.S. continues to update its security procedures as Al-Qaeda continues to refashion itself, the majority of attacks can be neutralized.
But imagine a Pakistan that is far more chaotic and run by far less forthcoming leadership than the one the U.S. currently faces. In this next phase of bin Laden-free global security, it is the beast of Pakistan’s uncertain future that ought to keep the intelligence community awake at night.
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