The decline of al-Qaeda

Muslims are rising up—for democracy and civil rights. Why bin Laden’s call to extremism has failed.

The decline of al-Qaeda

Erik de Castro/Reuters

Osama bin Laden enjoyed talking about his death. And like other hyper-religious Islamists, he claimed to long for it. “So let me be a martyr, dwelling in a high mountain pass among a band of knights who, united in devotion to God, descend to face armies,” he wrote in a poem he recited in a 2003 audiotape.

Bin Laden could embrace dying because he believed the war he had declared on Jews and “crusaders” was bigger than him and any other individual. It would sweep the Muslim ummah, or nation. “I am just a poor slave of God,” he said in December 2001, shortly after slipping away from the American bombardment of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan. “If I live or die, the war will continue.” With God’s grace, he said, the “awakening” had begun.

Now bin Laden is dead, assassinated by U.S. commandos in a May raid on his secret compound deep inside Pakistan. And indeed, the war between al-Qaeda and its many enemies continues. But al-Qaeda’s destructive nihilism is becoming a lonelier and lonelier pursuit. A decade after its most spectacular and murderous success, al-Qaeda is a shrunken shell of what it once was, rejected by increasing numbers of Muslims and even its onetime spiritual allies.

There is an awakening taking place in the Muslim world, but it is not of the sort envisioned by bin Laden. Uprisings that have shaken capital cities from Tehran to Tunis were led by some of al-Qaeda’s greatest foes: secularists, democrats, and liberated women. They are already stronger than bin Laden ever was. And their legacy will last longer.

Predicting the demise of al-Qaeda is risky. Its new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has released at least a dozen messages this year, more than triple his propaganda output in 2010. And the group is always just one spectacular attack away from renewed and invigorated infamy. Information captured during the raid that killed bin Laden reportedly suggests he was planning such an assault to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11. It’s safe to assume plots are ongoing.

And yet to properly judge al-Qaeda’s status today, it helps to remember its strength 10 and even five years ago.

On Sept. 10, 2001, al-Qaeda had a secure base in Afghanistan. Its cohorts didn’t run the country, but were nurtured and protected there. The Sept. 11 attacks brought them America’s fury and should have finished the organization. But in what was arguably the United States’ first major mistake in its war with al-Qaeda, America did not deploy enough troops to Tora Bora when bin Laden and his colleagues were trapped there. They absconded to Pakistan.

Soon after, in March 2003, the United States and several allied nations invaded Iraq. “It was sort of a life raft that was unexpectedly handed to them,” Peter Bergen, author of The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and al-Qaeda, said in an interview with Maclean’s. The invasion fed al-Qaeda’s narrative about America’s supposed attempt to subjugate the Muslim world. Al-Qaeda established a franchise in Iraq that controlled one-third of the country by 2006. Then, says Bergen, “they sunk the life raft.”

Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s attempts to impose a Taliban-like theocracy on the Sunnis of Iraq backfired. Iraqis who had previously fought American troops now turned to them for help fighting al-Qaeda. George W. Bush gambled on surging thousands more troops to the embattled country. It paid off. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is now a diminished force without territory.

This was a bigger defeat than may initially be apparent. Al-Qaeda has long stressed the importance of land. Ideally, says William McCants, an analyst at CNA’s Center for Naval Analyses, a U.S. government-funded think tank, the territory it controls must be relatively stable. The anarchy of Somalia, for example, is not well suited to planning attacks on Washington. Zawahiri himself wrote in his 2001 autobiography that al-Qaeda’s most important strategic goal was controlling a state, or a part of one: “Without achieving this goal, our actions will mean nothing.”

As Bergen, who is also director of the national security program at the New America Foundation, notes in The Longest War, al-Qaeda lost its bases in Afghanistan and then blew its shot at establishing a new one in Iraq. By “Zawahiri’s own standard, the group had achieved ‘nothing.’ ”

But al-Qaeda is also an ideology. To succeed it needs adherents. And it is also losing the battle for Muslim hearts and minds.

Pew Research Center polls asking Muslim respondents if they have confidence in Osama bin Laden to do the right thing in world affairs show a steep decline in recent years. In 2005, 61 per cent of Jordanians said they had “some” or “a lot” of confidence in bin Laden; this dropped to 13 per cent by 2011. In Pakistan in 2005, 52 per cent said they had confidence in bin Laden; 21 per cent did in 2011. Support in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, declined by more than half between 2003 and 2011. Even among Muslims in the Palestinian territories, where confidence in bin Laden ran highest, there was a drop from 72 per cent in 2003 to 34 per cent in 2011. (2011 polling was conducted before bin Laden’s death.)

Muslim support for suicide bombings and other violent acts against civilians—common al-Qaeda tactics—has also dropped. Forty-one per cent of Pakistanis thought it was sometimes or often justified in 2004; today only five per cent do. In Indonesia, support has dropped from 26 per cent in 2002 to 10 per cent today. The decline is similarly steep in Jordan and Lebanon.

Al-Qaeda’s shrinking support is its own fault, says Bergen. Perhaps most importantly, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have killed thousands of innocent Muslim civilians. This makes it difficult for them to credibly pose as Muslim defenders. Secondly, al-Qaeda offers no hope for the future. Many Muslims might admire it for standing up to the West, but they don’t want to live under its model society of Islamist tyranny. Third, al-Qaeda has never even tried to transform itself into a political movement that might gather wide support, such as Hamas or Hezbollah. It’s incapable of compromise. It rejects democracy.

According to McCants, this means al-Qaeda risks losing relevance to Islamist groups that are willing to work within a parliamentary system. Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood have “shared DNA,” said McCants in an interview with Maclean’s, referring to their philosophical foundations in the writings of the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb. But today branches of the Brotherhood are willing to contest elections. Al-Qaeda’s zealots see this as usurping God’s law.

Finally, notes Bergen, al-Qaeda’s list of foes keeps growing. It now includes Jews, Christians, Shia Muslims, moderate Muslims, the United Nations, and a slew of governments and NGOs. “Making a world of enemies is never a winning strategy,” he writes.

And yet losing support from a much tinier segment of the Muslim world may have been more costly to al-Qaeda’s viability. Al-Qaeda’s brutality has not only drawn the contempt of Muslim masses, it has done the same to some of the clerics and scholars who once provided al-Qaeda with religious cover.

When Bergen, then a producer for CNN, met Osama bin Laden in 1997, the al-Qaeda leader explained that one of the reasons he was calling for attacks against American targets was because of Saudi Arabia’s imprisonment, a few years earlier, of Sheik Salman al-Awdah. Awdah had condemned America’s military presence in Saudi Arabia, and would later, in 2004, urge Iraqis to fight the American occupation of their country. In 2007, Awdah addressed bin Laden on television: “My brother Osama, how much blood has been spilt? How many innocent people, children, elderly, and women have been killed . . . in the name of al-Qaeda? Will you be happy to meet God Almighty carrying the burden of these hundreds of thousands or millions of victims on your back?”

Bin Laden never responded. What could he say? Awdah was not an American stooge. He was once one of bin Laden’s heroes. And he was now one of several former religious allies who turned against him.

But the most damaging blow to al-Qaeda might have been landed by the youth who took to public squares across the Muslim world to demand the end of the dictatorships that ruled them. They didn’t burn Israeli and American flags, or demand a government modelled on the Taliban. “Most Muslims don’t want that. They want something else,” says Bergen. “And it turns out that what they want is pretty much what we want, which is accountable government, an independent judiciary, free press, and all the other things.”

In the wake of the uprising in Egypt, Mostafa Hussein, an Egyptian blogger and activist, told Maclean’s a transition to democracy in his country would make al-Qaeda “irrelevant.” There is no reason to join extremist groups, he said, “when you can speak, speak loudly, and tell people your ideas.”

This Optimism is not universal among terrorism experts. Leah Farrall, a former senior counterterrorism analyst with the Australian Federal Police, doesn’t think the Arab Spring will make much of a difference to al-Qaeda’s strength. She allows that al-Qaeda’s “bigger picture narrative” has been affected, but argues that al-Qaeda has always operated at the margins of society. It doesn’t need to be more than a fringe group to be dangerous. What’s more, says Farrall, any analysis of al-Qaeda must also consider the strength of its various affiliates in places like the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, and the Sahara. These give “it a way of projecting power when the core organization that is Pakistan-based maybe can’t plan an attack, or has had to go to ground,” she said in an interview with Maclean’s.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed responsibility for several attacks against the West in recent years, including dispatching the so-called “Underwear Bomber,” who tried to blow up a plane in 2009, and a 2010 attempt to blow up cargo planes with explosives hidden in laser printers. And al-Qaeda in Iraq has carried out numerous acts of local terrorism this summer.

It’s also worth recalling that al-Qaeda was never a mass organization, even on Sept. 11, 2001. It doesn’t need many members or supporters to terrorize and kill.

But al-Qaeda always had aspirations beyond hijackings and murder. These acts, while celebrated, were seen as the means of achieving greater goals: driving the United States out of the Middle East; overthrowing American allies in the region; and establishing a caliphate of Taliban-like theocracies from Indonesia to Morocco.

Judged against these goals, the decade since 9/11 has been a colossal failure for al-Qaeda. Tens of thousands more American soldiers are now in the Middle East. The Taliban have been driven from power in Afghanistan. And Muslim revolutionaries are demanding democracy rather than religious fascism. The caliphate isn’t coming back.

Even the fragment of territory al-Qaeda can claim to control in northwest Pakistan isn’t much of a safe haven. Its leaders sheltering there frequently fall victim to U.S. drones. Last month, one such missile strike killed Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, al-Qaeda’s latest second-in-command. Membership in the organization is becoming increasingly dangerous.

This doesn’t mean al-Qaeda won’t again successfully hit the United States and or its allies. And the group will always have its adherents, as well as independent copycats who commit outrages in al-Qaeda’s name. It has not been defeated. But al-Qaeda’s power and influence are dwindling.

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