- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 17, 2009

The eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the United Flight 93 crash in rural Pennsylvania has come and gone.

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden released his latest audio message two days later, warning that his “war of extermination” against the American people would continue “on all possible fronts.”

In an era largely defined by two wars in distant lands and a heightened level of security across the U.S., the basic question remains: Are we safer now?

The U.N.’s highest-ranking official for monitoring al Qaeda and the Taliban, Richard Barrett, gives a mixed but balanced assessment. It is noteworthy because it cites progress, dangers that persist and long-term challenges that have emerged, both abroad and in the United States.

In an interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Barrett noted some good news. In particular, he said that the al Qaeda leadership is having “difficulty in maintaining credibility; its legitimacy continues to be undermined. The overall context is less supportive of them.”

“Al Qaeda’s appeal internationally rose after 9/11 but subsequently fell back again,” said Mr. Barrett, coordinator of the U.N. team responsible for tracking al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The security expert said many of the findings he initially reported on last year in a paper titled: “Seven Years after 9/11: Al Qaida’s Strengths and Vulnerabilities” remain valid today.

The report was part of the Future Actions Series that provides long-term analysis of terrorism by many of the world’s leading security experts. It was co-published by Eden Intelligence and the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence.

“The core al Qaeda leadership remains in place, but it is still far from recovering the position of strength it enjoyed in 2001. It has suffered from an inability to clarify its role and aims,” states the report. While there are still many “sympathizers” around the world for al Qaeda, the “leadership has failed to find a consistent and reliable way to connect with and direct its supporters,” says the report.

At the Afghan-Pakistan border, al Qaeda has consolidated its influence mostly by building a fragile alliance with the Pakistani Taliban. Al Qaeda’s best hope for survival is to continue to foster a partnership with the Taliban in Afghanistan and to establish firm connections with the Pakistani Taliban.

Hence, the major objective of counterterrorism is to try to disrupt al Qaeda’s capacity to forge such alliances: “The key is to keep Al-Qaida’s leaders pinned down in the remote areas of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and prevent them by all means from connecting in person with their supporters and sympathizers elsewhere,” states the report.

Much has changed in the past year. Pakistan has waged military offensives against Taliban strongholds near its border with Afghanistan. U.S. troop levels have increased more than 20,000 in Afghanistan and, along with its NATO partners, suffered rising battlefield casualties.

Nevertheless, Mr. Barrett said that today the situation is not much different in Afghanistan than one year ago, with only slight changes in the border region. Al Qaeda remains relatively isolated in Afghanistan: “The action of Afghan forces and international partners has made it harder for them to operate.”

In addition, he said, al Qaeda remains bereft of vision and direction: “It is terribly difficult to say what their end goals are.”

Mr. Barrett said that coalition forces must continue to prevent al Qaeda from working with the Taliban; coalition forces “cannot compromise on that point.” Yet, in his view, much of the work in maintaining stability “needs to be achieved by national, not international forces.”

Mr. Barrett is skeptical that sending additional American forces will make much difference. “How many troops did the Russians have there?” he asked rhetorically, in reference to the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan, 1979-89. During its occupation, more than 620,000 Soviet soldiers were called to active service, although 80,000 to 100,000 served at any given time.

“Afghanistan is a big country,” Mr. Barrett said. “Insurgencies are really difficult to burn out and are rarely destroyed by military force.”

When asked whether America is now safer than it was eight years ago, he said that the threat from al Qaeda “was the same on September 10 as on September 12, but the events of the 11th of September changed everyone’s thinking.”

Counterterrorism is “now stronger” and “there is more protection against attacks.” Nonetheless, he noted that “it doesn’t take many people or much money” to launch similar attacks to those on Sept. 11. Hence, in his view, “the danger still exists.”

“The point of terrorism is to terrorize; it is to intimidate people in order to change policy,” Mr. Barrett said.

Moreover, he said that in trying to fix one problem - providing greater security - we have nonetheless created other difficulties on the home front. There “are long-term consequences of people having fought in wars,” he said. “Are we building another, different problem? There are fewer deaths [of soldiers in war], but real traumatic injuries.”

Mr. Barrett was addressing the strain on the American military in its current combat operations, leading to multiple deployments of the troops and about 300,000 warriors returning with post-traumatic stress disorder and record suicide rates.

So what have we achieved since that fateful day eight years ago? We have “learned a little bit more about dealing with insurgencies,” he said. His preference in all cases in combating terrorist activity is to search for a “very, very local answer,” targeting specific players.

Mr. Barrett’s sober, skeptical analysis points to a stark phenomenon: About 3,000 died on Sept. 11; in the aftermath, while key security objectives have been achieved, more than 5,000 American soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan combined and 300,000 bear grievous psychological wounds - losses and wounds that will reverberate for years to come.

Grace Vuoto is the editor of Base News, a citizen journalism project of The Washington Times.

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