News of Osama bin Laden’s killing by U.S. Special Forces at a compound near Islamabad, deep in the heart of Pakistan, sank in quickly. News of Al Qaeda’s demise, on the other hand, still has not. A gulf has emerged between the perception of the threat posed by Al Qaeda and its actual capabilities, and this gulf continues to widen.
And yet, like bin Laden himself, Al Qaeda—the very embodiment of what “terrorist organization” has come to mean in the minds of Americans—no longer exists. It has all but vanished, or at least dwindled to the palest shadow of its former self.
Nevertheless, Al Qaeda continues to have a hold over the Western imagination, in part because the West will not let it go. It remains shrouded in myth, still lurking in shadows and plotting to kill large numbers of innocent people. Too many people still accept the narrative that Al Qaeda remains the West’s greatest threat.
Yet even more than the killing of bin Laden, the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain have not only shaken the very foundation of the regional authoritarian order but threatened to unravel our narrative about terrorism. As the uprisings gained momentum, Al Qaeda was notably absent. The Arab Spring reinforced what many of us have known for a while: Al Qaeda’s core message is in conflict with the universal aspirations of the Arab world. Despite the group’s best efforts, Arabs and Muslims do not hate the West. Rather, they admire its democratic institutions, including free elections, peaceful transition of leadership, and separation of powers. The millions of Arabs involved have neither burned American and Western flags nor blamed the West for their predicament. Bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, neither speak for the umma (the global Muslim community) nor exercise any influence over Arab public opinion.
What, then, to make of Al Qaeda and Zawahiri? By selecting as its leader bin Laden’s second-in-command, Al Qaeda has opted for continuity. If Zawahiri eludes the U.S. effort to kill him, he faces insurmountable problems reviving a decimated enterprise.
First, his sensibilities and character are the wrong fit for the role. Although no one among the few surviving chiefs matches bin Laden’s stature and charisma, Zawahiri is particularly divisive and prickly. Hardly a rallying figure, he is more of a jihadist preacher and theorist than a military commander. Former associates hold him directly accountable for reckless blunders that brought ruin to Tanzim al-Jihad, an extremist group that battled the Mubarak regime, particularly the arrest of almost a thousand members of al-Jihad in the early 1990s. With that spotty military record, Al Qaeda’s gamble on Zawahiri to rejuvenate the group is wishful thinking.
Beyond this, Zawahiri faces the challenge of heading a multi-faced organization going through a structural and existential crisis that transcends personalities. Al Qaeda’s command-and-control is in tatters. Its few surviving top leaders have gone deeper underground, choosing personal safety over operational efficacy.
In the wake of their retreat, members and factions have taken matters into their own hands. Al Qaeda affiliates in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and elsewhere have attacked soft targets, killing Muslim civilians, and as a consequence have turned Muslim public opinion against the organization in particular and transnational jihad in general. In many countries, family members, friends, and neighbors now provide information about Al Qaeda suspects. Indeed, according to a letter seized from bin Laden’s compound that was sent to Zawahiri within the past year, bin Laden acknowledged that Al Qaeda’s image among Muslims was suffering and considered a fresh start under a new name to escape the negative connotations associated with the Al Qaeda brand.
Western intelligence officials now believe that there are fewer than 300 surviving members of Al Qaeda, based mainly in Pakistan and Afghanistan, down from a peak of 3,000 to 4,000 fighters in the late 1990s. Most of Al Qaeda’s skilled operatives and mid-level field lieutenants have been either killed or captured, depleting the ranks of seasoned fighters and effective managers, and depriving it of significant operational capability. The bulk of Al Qaeda’s membership is now composed of cooks, drivers, bodyguards, and foot soldiers.
So profound is Al Qaeda’s disarray that one of its field lieutenants, in a message intercepted by U.S. intelligence, had pleaded with bin Laden to come to the group’s rescue and provide some leadership. His plea fell on deaf ears.
Its weakness not withstanding, Al Qaeda groups might succeed in carrying out an attack in the short- to mid-term. If history is a guide, Zawahiri is plotting a spectacular strike to affirm his leadership and Al Qaeda’s existence as well—though, despite his repeated threats to strike inside the United States in the last decade, he has failed to do so. Such an attack would mark his passage from the shadow of bin Laden to the limelight as inheritor of global jihad. Troubling as it is, this threat must not blind us to the limited challenge posed by Al Qaeda. Only a miracle will resuscitate transnational jihad of the Al Qaeda variety.
Despite its crippled state, Al Qaeda continues to loom large in the American psyche. To many Americans, 9/11 was nothing less than a turning point in American history—a feeling that has been internalized by official Washington as well. More than a decade later, few Americans and Westerners realize the degree to which their fear of terrorism and terrorists is misplaced. There can be no closure so long as ideology and reality remain confused.
And closure is badly needed: It is high time that the United States end the global war on terror and begin withdrawal of its troops from Muslim lands (President Obama’s announcement of a substantial withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan is a step in the right direction). Only then will Al Qaeda, like Osama bin Laden, not only die, but finally be allowed to die.