The attack in January on a gas facility in Algeria by an al Qaeda-linked group that resulted in at least 37 dead hostages has sparked an outpouring of dire warnings from leading Western politicians.
British Prime Minister David Cameron described a "large and existential threat" emanating from North Africa. Tony Blair, his predecessor as prime minister, agreed saying, "David Cameron is right to warn that this is a battle for our values and way of life which will take years, even decades."
Hang on chaps! Before we all get our knickers in a tremendous twist: How exactly does an attack on an undefended gas facility in the remotest depths of the Algerian desert become an "existential threat" to our "way of life"?
Across the Atlantic, American politicians also got into sky-is-falling mode. Republican Congressman Mike Rogers, who heads the House Intelligence Committee, fulminated, "This is going to get worse. You cannot allow this to become a national security issue for the United States. And I argue it's already crossed that threshold."
Previous real U.S. national security threats and their manifestations include 9/11, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (from the potential use of nuclear weapons) with the Soviets, Pearl Harbor and Hitler's armies taking over much of Europe.
A ragtag group of jihadists roaming the North African deserts is orders of magnitude less significant than those genuine threats to the West and is more comparable to the threats posed by the bands of pirates who continue to harass shipping off the coast of Somalia. They are surely a problem, but a localized and containable one.
Western politicians and commentators who claim that the al Qaeda linked groups in North Africa are a serious threat to the West unnecessarily alarm their publics and also feed the self-image of these terrorists who aspire to attack the West, but don't have the capacity to do so. Terrorism doesn't work if folks aren't terrorized.
North African group hasn't attacked in the West
Much has been written, for instance, in recent weeks about al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Qaeda's North African affiliate, a splinter group of which carried out the attack on the Algerian gas facility. But according to Camille Tawil, who has authoritatively covered Islamist militant groups over the past two decades for the leading Arabic daily Al-Hayat and has written three books about al Qaeda, AQIM doesn't threaten the West: "To my knowledge no known attacks or aborted attacks in the West have been linked directly to AQIM."
AQIM was formed seven years ago so the group has had more than enough time to plot and carry out an attack in the West. By way of comparison, it took two years of serious plotting for al Qaeda to plan the 9/11 attacks.
So, what is the real level of threat now posed by al Qaeda and allied groups?
Let's start with "core al Qaeda" which attacked the United States on 9/11 and that is headquartered in Pakistan. This group hasn't, of course, been able to pull off an attack in the United States in twelve years. Nor has it been able to mount an attack anywhere in the West since the attacks on London's transportation system eight years ago.
Core al Qaeda on way to extinction
Osama bin Laden, the group's founder and charismatic leader, was buried at sea a year and half ago and despite concerns that his "martyrdom" would provoke a rash of attacks in the West or against Western interests in the Muslim world there has instead been.... nothing.
Meanwhile, CIA drone strikes in Pakistan during President Obama's tenure alone have killed 38 of al Qaeda's leaders in Pakistan, according to a count by the New America Foundation.
Those drone strikes were so effective that shortly before bin Laden died he was contemplating ordering what remained of al Qaeda to move to Kunar Province in the remote, heavily forested mountains of eastern Afghanistan, according to documents that were discovered following the SEAL assault on the compound where bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Core al Qaeda is going the way of the dodo.
Affiliates are no better off
And a number of the affiliates of core al Qaeda are in just as bad shape as the mother ship.
Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the virulent Southeast Asian al Qaeda affiliate that killed hundreds in the years after 9/11 is largely out of business. Why so? JI killed mostly Westerners in its first attacks on the tourist island of Bali in 2002, but the subsequent Bali attack three years later killed mostly Indonesians. So too did JI's attacks on the Marriott hotel in the capital Jakarta in 2003 and the Australian embassy in 2004. As a result, JI lost any shred of popular support it had once enjoyed.
At the same time the Indonesian government, which at one point had denied that JI even existed, mounted a sophisticated campaign to dismantle the group, capturing many of its leaders and putting them on trial.
In the Philippines, the Abu Sayyaf Group, a number of whose leaders had trained in Afghanistan in al Qaeda's camps, and which specialized in kidnapping Westerners in the years after 9/11, was effectively dismantled by the Philippine army working in tandem with a small contingent of U.S. Special Operations Forces.
In Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban in 2009 took over the once-tranquil mountainous vacation destination of Swat, and destroyed some 180 schools and beheaded 70 policemen there. Suddenly, they were only 70 miles from the capital Islamabad and some warned that the Pakistani state was in danger. Today, the Pakistani Taliban have been rolled back to their bases along the Afghan border and 16 of their leaders have been killed by CIA drones since President Obama took office.
Al Qaeda militants based in Saudi Arabia mounted a terrorist campaign beginning in 2003 that killed dozens of Saudis, and they also attacked a number of the oil workers and oil facilities that lie at the heart of the Saudi economy. This prompted the Saudi government to mount such an effective crackdown that the few remaining al Qaeda leaders who were not killed or captured have in recent years fled south to Yemen where the remnants of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are now based.
From its new headquarters in Yemen AQAP has made serious efforts to attack the United States, sending the "underwear bomber" to blow up Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 and also smuggling bombs on to U.S.-bound cargo shipments in October 2010.