Contrary to what Obama says, al-Qaida isn't on the run, it's metastasized

Only a few months have passed since President Obama last boasted that al-Qaida is on "the path to defeat."

But then, just a few days ago, his State Department issued what it called a "worldwide caution" on "the continuing threat of terrorist actions and violence against U.S. citizens and interests throughout the world." State warned that al-Qaida is now threatening Americans in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, Africa and Central Asia -- practically the entire world.


What happened?

Put simply, al-Qaida has metastasized. Yes, the U.S. military ran al-Qaida out of Afghanistan more than 10 years ago and destroyed al-Qaida's central structure? -- then, more recently, killed Osama bin Laden.


But now affiliates are irrupting like malignant cancer cells almost everywhere, choosing a dizzying array of threatening Islamic names, including: the Islamic Jihad Union, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Boko Haram, Ansar al-Shariah, Ansar beit al-Maqdis, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and, of course al-Shabab, which carried out that deadly attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya, last month.

These groups and many others are dedicated to ravaging Western life. And some of the previously local groups are now eager to join that larger global battle -- as did al-Shabab, which is a Somali group. It had never before carried out a significant attack outside Somalia.

The jihadist groups can work independently, but most are reported to coordinate their carnage with Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin-Laden's successor as the al-Qaida leader. And it was he, the U.S. says, who ordered coordinated attacks on American embassies and consulates in August, a plan that prompted the United States to close more than 20 of them.

In fact, you can make the case that, following the Arab Spring, we are now looking at the Islamic Autumn. Islamist extremists have, for example, now become the majority opposition fighters in the Syrian civil war. Just a few days ago, they announced that they will no longer recognize the Western-backed secular opposition leaders because they intend to turn Syria into an Islamic caliphate.

Islamic rebels in northern Mali just declared that they will no longer recognize the peace agreement they signed in June and will likely pick up the fight again, while violent Islamic separatists in southern Thailand said they are preparing to give up on peace negotiations with the Thai government.

Less than a year after the Philippines signed a peace accord with one jihadist group, another sprang up last month. More than 200 people had died in a standoff with the Moro National Liberation Front by last Saturday, when the national military declared the battle won -- for now.

In Austria, complaints about neo-Nazi activities have diminished to insignificance now because "people are more worried about Salafist extremist teenagers," the newspaper Austria Today reported in summer. Germany recently banned three ultraconservative Islamic sects, including Salafism, complaining that they actively fight against freedom of religion.

In Bangladesh, repeated angry protests finally prompted the government to ban Jamaat-e-Islami, the state's largest Islamic political party.


Where is this leading? The State Department says "current information suggests that al-Qaida, its affiliated organizations and other terrorist groups continue to plan terrorist attacks against U.S. interests in multiple regions." These attacks "may employ a wide variety of tactics including suicide operations, assassinations, kidnappings, hijackings and bombings."

At the same time, almost daily we continue to hear about major attacks in Pakistan, where a bus bombing killed 18 people a few days ago, and Iraq, where bombings of markets and mosques last week killed at least 50 people. One bombing of a woman's funeral in Baghdad killed more than 100 mourners. In Syria, a car bomb exploded just outside a mosque north of Damascus as worshipers emerged from Friday prayers. The attack killed at least 30 people and wounded dozens more, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

For most Americans, however, Islamic-extremist atrocities like these in the Middle East have become the white noise of international news.

But the State Department is now warning that "extremists have targeted and attempted attacks on subway and rail systems, aviation and maritime services. In the past, these types of attacks have occurred in cities such as Moscow, London, Madrid, Glasgow and New York City."

Americans remain the favored targets. In fact, Raymond Ibrahim, an Egyptian-American writer who often blogs about Islamist affairs, recently cited an Islamic cleric whose sermons are often posted online. Mr. Ibrahim told me the cleric was not named, but speaking to his followers, this cleric said he boldly "swears to Allah several times" that the black Islamic flag will one day "fly over the White House."

Joel Brinkley is the Hearst professional in residence at Stanford University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning former correspondent for The New York Times.