Hinging off the Jakarta bombings, Steve Coll makes a provocative point about al-Qaeda:

 In a strategic sense, Al Qaeda is contained, and yet it can continue to make enough noise and attract enough media attention to shape political discourse in the United States and elsewhere. The correct response to this paradox is to develop in the United States a posture of strategic patience about terrorism that is durable, vigilant and proportionate to the actual threat. Achieving this, however, would require a much stronger national political consensus about terrorism and American responses to it, so that this subject is no longer a legitimate arena of manipulative and demagogic politics of the Cheney school.

Which is another way of saying political failure inhibits a sustainable and proportionate response to terrorism, as it’s easier to mislead the public about the actions necessary to combat terrorism than it is to rule out options in the effort. (Renouncing torture, warrantless surveillance, etc.) 

What Cole means by "contained" is that al-Qaeda is minimally capable and self-marginalizing. It produces, with competence, "low-technology terrorism that is repetitive, limited, politically self-defeating, and yet still capable of creating shocks," but hasn’t metastacized into the broader movement that in 2004-6 it looked like it actually was becoming. Still, there needs to be some stress put on the idea. al-Qaeda has always had a limiting pseudo-theological underpinning its agenda that precludes large-scale Muslim bandwagoning. But we really are talking about a couple of guys who can become force multipliers to varied Islamic extremist movements in places like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Perhaps al-Qaeda is no longer franchising — its defeat in Iraq has, maybe, eroded the brand — and is now doing something like consulting work. That seems to be what it’s up to in Somalia with al-Shebab.

And clearly the danger to regional stability is greater in nuclear-armed Pakistan than in Somalia. Does the export of its operatives to these areas indicate containment, even if the danger hasn’t re-metasticized? I’m not sure containment is the most useful concept here. Perhaps a better one is a concept of erosion or degradation of its capabilities. al-Qaeda has always been an ideology as much as an organization. It’s failing to do major damage as an organization. That’s erosion. But exporting the movement to expand the capabilities of other extremist entities might be a plausible future for it. And that means a strategy of erosion should focus on breaking its connections to those entities and addressing the concerns of those entities that lead them to seek out al-Qaeda. In some cases that may mean (why be euphemistic) appeasing them; others may require confrontation; it’s along a spectrum. 

All this begs the question of when al-Qaeda is marginalized if they’re not already. I don’t have an answer. Maybe al-Qaeda is the Mark Halperin of terrorism: LOUD LOUD LOUD and ultimately insubstantial. If you sever Halperin’s ties to, say, Time, maybe he starts his own blog, maybe he tries to glom onto a different journalistic organization. If someone other MSM organization hires him, you still face the same strategic situation. If he strikes out on his own, technology allows him more opportunity than it did ten years ago, but he’ll still have to hustle for resources and face a question of diminishing returns for both attention and impact. He’ll get an occasional Drudge link. But quick — can you name five stories that were on Drudge two weeks ago? A month ago? Etc? (Thanks to AZ for the Halperin analogy.)

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman