Al-Qaeda is peddling an ideology that has lost much of its purchase in the Muslim world, and it hasn’t mounted a successful terrorist attack in the West since the July 7, 2005, transportation bombings in London. The terrorist network’s plots, for instance, to blow up seven American, British and Canadian planes over the Atlantic in 2006, to set off bombs in Manhattan in 2009, and to mount Mumbai-style attacks in Europe a year later all came to nothing. Most notably, it hasn’t carried out a successful attack in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001.
This significant record of failure predates the momentous events of the Arab Spring — events in which al-Qaeda’s leaders, foot soldiers and ideas played no role.
Meanwhile, U.S. drone strikes have decimated the bench of al-Qaeda’s commanders since the summer of 2008, when President George W. Bush authorized a ramped-up program of attacks in Pakistan’s tribal regions. And in the two most populous Muslim nations — Indonesia and Pakistan — favorable views of bin Laden and support for suicide bombings dropped by at least half between 2003 and 2010.
The key force behind this decline has been the deaths of Muslim civilians at the hands of jihadist terrorists. The trail of dead civilians from Baghdad to Jakarta and from Amman to Islamabad over the past decade has largely been the work of al-Qaeda and its allies. Though jihadist groups position themselves as the defenders of the Islamic faith, it has become clear that their actions are quite damaging to Muslims themselves.
Conscious of this problem, in December 2007 Zawahiri and his handlers took the unprecedented step of soliciting questions from anyone over the Internet; the al-Qaeda leader answered them four months later.
It did not go well. Someone identifying himself as a geography teacher asked: “Excuse me, Mr. Zawahiri, but who is it who is killing with Your Excellency’s blessing the innocents in Baghdad, Morocco and Algeria? Do you consider the killing of women and children to be jihad?” Zawahiri responded that he could justify al-Qaeda’s killings of Muslim civilians, and he did so defensively in dense, recondite passages that referred to other dense, recondite things he had already said about the matter.
This exchange only confirmed Zawahiri’s shortcomings, especially compared with his predecessor. Far from being the inspiring orator that bin Laden was, Zawahiri is much more like the pedantic and long-winded uncle who insists on regaling the family at Thanksgiving dinner with accounts of his arcane disputes with obscure enemies no one else cares about.