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Conflict with al Qaeda Will Continue Into Its Third Decade, Although Tactics May Change

While al Qaeda's capacity for large-scale attacks has been drastically reduced and the organization seriously weakened, the United States can expect to continue its battle with the terrorist group for many years to come, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

"The reason al Qaeda's leaders think victory is imminent is because they see the battle from entirely different terms than the Western world," said Brian Michael Jenkins, author of the study and senior adviser to the president of RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "In their view, war is perpetual, fighting is mandatory and with God on their side, ultimate victory is guaranteed."

Jenkins, who founded the systematic study of terrorism at RAND 40 years ago, distills for this report several themes from recent presentations and briefings he has given on the current status of al Qaeda.

Americans like their wars to have clear-cut beginning and end dates, Jenkins says, but this is at odds with al Qaeda's leaders, who see the current conflict as the continuation of centuries of armed struggle between "believers and infidels," and who expect it to transcend their lifetimes.

Al Qaeda's ability to launch large-scale terrorist attacks like the ones of Sept. 11, 2001, have been all but eliminated, and the death of its former leader, Osama bin Laden, robbed the organization of a powerful source of inspiration. But the terrorist group maintains its peripheral commands and its communications network, and has a host of allies who subscribe to its ideology of global terrorism.

Despite al Qaeda's claims that last year's Arab Spring protests were somehow the result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the protesters in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain were motivated by the desire for greater political freedom and economic opportunity, not the desire to adopt Sharia Law, Jenkins said. However, the continuing turmoil in the region gives al Qaeda some immediate tactical opportunities and potential recruiting space if populations become disillusioned by a lack of political and economic progress.

Jenkins notes that while al Qaeda is the main reason the United States invaded Afghanistan and increased its military commitment there in 2010, the country is not essential to the terrorist group, which has training bases elsewhere. However, Afghanistan does have symbolic importance to al Qaeda and a return to power by the Taliban is something al Qaeda would welcome.

Al Qaeda's attempts to generate homegrown terrorists on American soil have largely failed. American Muslims have overwhelmingly rejected al Qaeda's ideology, while intelligence efforts have uncovered and foiled almost every domestic terrorist plot.

Finally, Jenkins argues that Americans must accept that this conflict could continue without a clear-cut ending. Learning to live with this kind of continuing threat without succumbing to imaginary fears or allowing the gradual growth of an oppressive security state will be challenging.

"What Americans may really be seeking is an end to fear—the official termination of terror," Jenkins said. "This cannot be delivered by counterterrorist operations. It is a mission of all Americans and their leaders."

The study, "Al Qaeda in Its Third Decade: Irreversible Decline or Imminent Victory," can be found at www.rand.org.

Funding for this study was provided by RAND's Investment in People and Ideas program, which combines philanthropic contributions from individuals, foundations and private-sector firms with earnings from RAND's endowment and operations to support research on issues that reach beyond the scope of traditional client sponsorship.

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