The Head of the Al Qaeda Snake Has Been Cut Off

Edward N. Luttwak is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

It happened only 24 months ago, but “before-Sept. 11" already feels like the remote past, an era of ignorance if not innocence.

Of course, many things we learned since the terrorist attacks were not very important, such as the briefly mythic names of many Al Qaeda operatives and chiefs, now dead or prisoners in Guantanamo and around the world. True, No. 1 is still free if alive, hiding in a Pakistani basement or perhaps a village in Yemen, but he is clearly no longer the chief of a functioning organization.

The attacks in Riyadh and Casablanca earlier this year are the best evidence of that. Al Qaeda attracted the passionate admiration of frustrated Muslim extremists by attacking hard targets in spectacular ways to kill and humiliate “the Christian crusaders”: well-guarded embassies, a warship, the Pentagon. It was widely expected that Sept. 11 would be followed at intervals by further spectacular attacks, with nuclear power stations being only the most important of a long series of plausible targets in the United States and Europe. But instead there were only misdirected blows, which did little to attract funds and recruits to Al Qaeda.

There is a very good reason that Al Qaeda has not financed and directed well-planned operations in the manner of 9/11: It no longer exists as a functioning group with the headquarters, training camps, depots and secure bases it once had in Afghanistan.


When the United States set out to conquer that country within weeks of the Sept. 11 attacks, it was said the attempt would fail because of the vastness of the country, its terrain, the onset of winter and the ferocious resistance of the Taliban, which would defeat the Americans as it had defeated the Soviet army. When the Taliban instead collapsed with hardly a fight even before the main U.S. forces arrived in Pakistan for the planned invasion -- they were defeated in three weeks by scouts, tiny advance teams and local allies -- it was said Al Qaeda would merely disperse in other Muslim countries, becoming even more dangerous.

But we now know that only fragments of Al Qaeda remain, scattered individuals with some money, skills and weapons who can continue to carry out sporadic attacks but not anything resembling the terrorist offensive that culminated Sept. 11. Because there is no longer a headquarters to evaluate security measures and instruct operatives to overcome them, they continue to be arrested for doing what they were trained to do in Afghanistan, such as pretending to be Belgians. (Al Qaeda had a stock of Belgian passports.)

Above all, Al Qaeda’s attempt to ignite a global Muslim war against “Crusaders and Jews” has instead provoked the bitter opposition of traditional, orthodox Muslims everywhere, who bitterly resent the damage done to their secular reputation for tolerance. Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are outgrowths of the Salafist-Wahhabi sect, heterodox extremists who refuse to accept the Koranic rule that Christians and Jews are free to practice their religion in Muslim lands as well.

Once very few, the Salafist-Wahhabis were largely confined to a remote corner of Arabia until the Saudi ruling family financed its global spread through their subsidized schools, luxurious new mosques and well-paid preachers. They have long undermined and humiliated traditional imams, who are now reacting by exposing their violations of the Koran.

The one great failure of the counteroffensive against terrorism is that Saudi Arabia continues to finance its schools of intolerance and its mosques of extremism, even a few miles from the White House.