It's back, a top terrorism expert told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday.
"Today, al-Qaida has not only regrouped, but it is on the march," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp. "Al-Qaida is now functioning exactly as its founder and leader, Osama bin Laden, envisioned it."
The measurable progress against al-Qaida is frequently touted: Three-quarters of al-Qaida's pre-Sept. 11 leadership have been killed or captured, according to government estimates, and at least $140 million in bank assets frozen. In March, James Phillips, a research fellow with the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., said the continued offensive in Afghanistan and elsewhere has hamstrung.
"Al-Qaida's leaders increasingly must focus on their own personal security and have less time for plotting mass murder. It is more difficult for bin Laden and his lieutenants to recruit new members, train them, communicate with them, or carry out new operations. The isolation of al-Qaeda's top leaders, believed to be hidden along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, has reduced their ability to supervise the network's activities in other regions," Phillips said.
The Rand Corp.'s counterterrorism office has been studying captured al-Qaida literature and speeches over the last year -- the so-called Harmony documents seized in Afghanistan and dating back to the mid-1980s -- and has arrived at a very different conclusion.
"Today, al-Qaida is also frequently spoken of as it if is in retreat: a broken and beaten organization incapable of mounting further attacks on its own and instead having devolved operational authority either to its carious affiliates and associated or to entirely organically produced, homegrown, terrorist entities. Nothing could be further from the truth," Hoffman told the committee.
The Afghan attack "pulverized" al-Qaida, Hoffman told United Press International Wednesday.
"I think we did do that, but this is a movement with enormous regenerative capacity -- its message resonates, and it's not wanting for volunteers," Hoffman said. "They've adapted and adjusted to even our most consequential countermeasures."
In the ensuing four years since the attack, the organization has evolved into what bin Laden set out to create: a fractured, worldwide movement inspired by bin Laden and united by a single vision, as well as a central organization that continues to direct the implementation of terrorist attacks.
"To the idea al-Qaida is on the run -- how can that be if al-Qaida was directly responsible for the most consequential terrorist incident of the last year? (The London bombings) was not Sept. 11 but it was still a very significant attack," Hoffman said. "It's wishful thinking."
Moreover, it was carried out by an al-Qaida cell British intelligence -- one of the best counter-terrorist forces in the world -- knew nothing about.
"Why should we assume this is the only group of al-Qaida operatives in the world we don't know about?" Hoffman said.
"There's a proclivity to look at (recent) terrorist activity as homegrown threats. 'It's not al-Qaida so we don't really have to worry about it,'" he said. "There are perils to complacency."
Hoffman advocates a flexible, adaptable approach to the enemy. The Pentagon has come to grips with what it needs to do -- mount a massive counterinsurgency fight that encompasses not just military action but economic development, humanitarian help and, most importantly, information operations. The rest of the government is not engaged, however, and needs to be. It will be at least a decade-long fight, and it has not yet begun.
"(Islamist) radicalization is increasing rather than decreasing," Hoffman said. "This is not a fight against the current generation of terrorist, and the next generation is already indoctrinated. What we need to be doing is not fighting the generation after this."
Hoffman believes the United States has ceded the Internet and its propaganda to the terrorists -- there is very little effort to counter the information promulgated by al-Qaida and its affiliates. While it might do nothing to affect those already committed to violence, extremists might yet be swayed if they have contrary, verifiable information.
And there is one resource that could help shape what that message should be that is not being tapped -- the hundreds or thousands of prisoners held in the war on terror. They are regularly pumped for tactical intelligence. However, unlike the effort during the Vietnam war to build a complete understanding to the Viet Cong -- what motivates them to join, how they train and recruit -- no similar intelligence effort is underway with the new enemy, Hoffman said.
"There is nothing looking to mine this kind of information," he said. "Consequently we are clearly failing, and also not targeting public diplomacy."