Facts and public fears are at odds over a changing al Qaeda
David Cameron surprised some of his own backbenchers recently with clarion calls for a generational fight against al-Qaeda as an existential threat to Britain's "way of life." For some in his party, at least, the new vocabulary came slightly too close to old refrains from the Bush-Blair lexicon.
Notwithstanding, Cameron and his Franco-American allies are correct, of course, that the new front of North African jihadism must be closed down before the Maghreb-Sahel region duplicates the dynamics of Afghanistan and Somalia in the 1990s - namely a petridish for terrorism and organised international crime; a training ground for wannabe extremists; and a geopolitical playground for misbehaving regional powers.
Meanwhile, and perhaps predictably, recent YouGov polling shows a shift in British public opinion, with fears of terrorism back on the rise, doubtless helped by the dialled-up rhetoric, military intervention and hostage tragedy of recent weeks.
In July 2010, we asked a nationally representative sample of British adults whether they thought the threat of terrorism in Britain had increased or decreased in the last five years.
In these results, 25% said the threat had increased, compared with 70% overall who thought it had stayed the same (53%) or decreased (17%).
Then in late January this year, we re-asked the same question to a similar sample of British adults.
This time, 45% said the threat had increased, versus 51% overall who said it had stayed the same (38%) or decreased (13%).
It's an irony, therefore, that a number of those factors now upping the public fear-factor and putting al Qaeda back on the front page are also factors that indicate a creeping decline for al Qaeda as the kind of globe-trotting bogeyman we once feared.
Its very emergence in the Maghreb-Sahel is a story of retreat as well as expansion: al Qaeda and associates fled into Pakistan after losing much of their original base in the founding homelands of Afghanistan; political rejection in Iraq and an escalating US drone programme in the Afghan-Pakistani tribal areas helped to squeeze the movement into new manifestations across Yemen and Somalia, before new operational hubs appeared most recently in North Africa.
Controversial as it may be, the drone programme has been credited with repeatedly decimating all but the junior ranks of al Qaeda, leaving a thin core struggling to maintain both experienced authority or symbolic figureheads who can replace the unifying icon of Osama bin Laden.
In the years since 9/11, myriad initiatives for enhanced cooperation across sovereign intelligence communities have greatly improved their predictive and preventive capacities.
Similarly, greater cross-border coordination of forensic accountancy has hampered the kind of long-range, international financing that was necessary to facilitate an event such as 9/11.
These factors combined have helped to dry the flow of foreign wannabes making pilgrimage to the training camps, and undermined both the conditions and cachet of student life when they get there.
Meanwhile, from Anbar and Swat to Timbuktu, al Qaeda groups or affiliates have consistently alienated communities where they have attempted to take root beyond Afghanistan, and suffered strategic defeat as a result. This trend gave a helping hand to coalition surge-strategies in Iraq, for instance, in helping to sway the loyalties of local factions alongside the provision of largesse and political shares in future regional and national governance.
As noted here by Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator and member of the external YouGov-Cambridge Advisory Board, 'Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb' (AQIM) might sound scary, but it is more an off-shoot of the Algerian insurgency than of bin Laden, with much of the membership more experienced in smuggling and kidnapping than taking on the world's most powerful intelligence communities.
This points to a larger fact: the al Qaeda movement doubtless remains lethal, virulent and wholly requiring of the coordinated international response that just prevented Mali from collapse and subjugation. But it is also being incrementally pushed into an age more like the 1990s, where its activities were sporadic, lacking ideological or logistical coordination, and more confined to localised and non-Western theatres. As the experienced correspondent Jason Burke duly notes, a refinery in the Sahara is hardly the Twin Towers or the Pentagon, and represents the growing difficulty of these militant networks to hit new targets that resonate so powerfully across their Muslim constituencies.
Sweeping definitions of an existential Islamist threat largely went out of political fashion in Britain and the United States after 2003, as the Iraq War proved to be more a recruiting poster for terrorism than a bulwark against it, and the language of 'global war' was gradually recognised as helping to inflate the mythical reach of increasingly localised enemies and warring factions.
The recent Mali intervention has been decisive and justified. But since generating terror is a key aim of terrorists, we should mind some of the existential hype around AQIM, or we're handing them an undeserved and much coveted marketing victory.