End of the Road For Al Qaeda- Boston Review
News of Osama bin Laden’s killing by U.S. special forces at a compound near the Pakistani capital of Islamabad has sunk in. News of al Qaeda’s demise, on the other hand, has not.
While there is ongoing analysis of the compound in Abbottabad, what it contained, and whether the evidence suggests bin Laden’s active participation in al Qaeda’s operations up to the moment of his death, there remains little debate in the media about his organization and its viability. Though opinions in some quarters have begun to shift, commentators and analysts readily accept the narrative advanced by many officials and so-called terrorism experts, who argue that al Qaeda remains the West’s greatest threat.
These officials and experts are wrong. Their account, premised on the notion that millions in the Arab world are heeding al Qaeda’s call for jihad not only against the West but against corrupt Arab regimes, is unconvincing. The Arab revolutions of 2011 left bin Laden behind. As the revolutions crescendoed, al Qaeda was notably absent; the millions of protesters were not uttering jihadist slogans or endorsing violent tactics.
What this revealed once and for all is that al Qaeda offers no economic blueprint, no political horizon, and no vision for the future. The revolutions have reinforced what many of us already knew: al Qaeda’s core ideology is incompatible with wider Arab aspirations.
Not only is al Qaeda philosophically out of step with the vast majority of Arabs, it is organizationally moribund. Today it comprises roving bands limited to the mountains and valleys of Pakistani tribal areas along the Afghan border, where bin Laden was assumed to be hiding; remote areas in Yemen along the Saudi border; and the wastes of the Sahara and Maghreb. Its actions show a consistent pattern of ineptitude. Its leadership increasingly relies on inexperienced freelancers or unskilled recruits.
Al Qaeda peaked with the 9/11 attacks. As soon as they were over, the decline began. After bin Laden, his cohort, and the Taliban were expelled from Afghanistan, al Qaeda was effectively decapitated. The leadership was on the run or captured. Dispersed haphazardly into various countries, most of which were unwelcoming, bin Laden’s men were rounded up by vigilant local security services competing to show Americans how cooperative they were.
From Yemen to Syria, the United Arab Emirates to Pakistan, the hunt for al Qaeda has produced scores of significant arrests. Iran—which in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was on friendlier terms with the United States than it is now—arrested or extradited hundreds of bin Laden’s men who had fled there, including senior military commanders and members of his family. Pakistani authorities offered valuable and tangible assistance to the United States, helping it arrest more than 400 of bin Laden’s top lieutenants and operatives, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah. Yemen rounded up jihadis and imprisoned them en masse. President Ali Abdullah Saleh flew to Washington and showed his support by allowing the CIA to kill Abu Ali al Harithi, then leader of al Qaeda in Yemen. Harithi and five other suspects were shot down by an unmanned Predator while driving in the desert east of the capital Sana’a in November 2002.
There is increasing evidence that just two years after 9/11 bin Laden and his right-hand man Ayman al Zawahiri were vulnerable, constantly on the move between rural locations in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and fully occupied with avoiding capture. Western intelligence authorities say that between 2001 and 2003 they had reliable information on bin Laden’s movements, though the information was not recent enough to act upon. Still, there was a window of opportunity: al Qaeda was in disequilibrium, its leaders were on the run, and there was genuine goodwill toward the United States among governments in a position to help take down bin Laden’s group…