Almost 10 years ago, al-Qaeda committed one of the most chilling and brutal attacks in the memory of a generation. The radical politics of a small band of Muslim extremists became everyone’s business and set into motion reactions and counter-reactions that launched two wars, guided U.S. foreign policy and defined domestic agendas.
Yet on Sunday evening, Osama bin Laden — the embodiment of what “terrorist” has come to mean to Americans and other Westerners, the symbol of everything antithetical to Western values — was killed by U.S. forces. While bin Laden’s death is a significant victory for the United States, al-Qaeda is no longer a potent organization. Bin Laden had become merely a symbol of hatred and violence.
Al-Qaeda was already crippled: Its centralized command-and-control had been dismantled and its top leaders had gone deeper and deeper underground, choosing personal safety over operational efficacy. According to U.S. and Western intelligence agencies, fewer than 300 members of al-Qaeda survive. They are under siege in the tribal areas along Pakistan and its border with Afghanistan, where the United States has nearly 100,000 troops. Most of al-Qaeda’s skilled operatives and mid-level field lieutenants have been killed or captured. Cooks, drivers, bodyguards and foot soldiers constitute the bulk of al-Qaeda membership.
While suicide bombings remain al-Qaeda’s tactic of choice, its ability to project power and carry out complex attacks along the Sept. 11 lines has degraded considerably despite repeated threats over the past year by bin Laden and his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to attack the United States. Local al-Qaeda branches in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the Maghreb and elsewhere have exposed al-Qaeda’s loss of operational control and damaged its outreach efforts to Muslims. Indiscriminate targeting of civilians has turned Muslim opinion against al-Qaeda’s tactics and ideology. To most Muslims, al-Qaeda has brought ruin to the ummah, or Muslim global community.
As a result, al-Qaeda attracts fewer skilled recruits and finds fewer havens. In many countries, information about al-Qaeda suspects now comes from citizens, including family members, friends and neighbors, not from surveillance and intelligence sources. Bin Laden’s and Zawahiri’s call for violent transnational jihad no longer resonates with ordinary Muslims.
Still, al-Qaeda and bin Laden remain shrouded in myth, generally portrayed as force multipliers, lurking everywhere, ceaselessly plotting to kill innocent people en masse. Commentators and analysts have been all too ready to propagate the narrative advanced by officials and so-called terrorism experts — that the United States was under constant threat from bin Laden and his cronies.
The world, though, has already moved beyond bin Laden and al-Qaeda. The Arab revolutions exposed al-Qaeda as irrelevant to the real challenges facing Arab society. Al-Qaeda offers no economic blueprint, no political vision. Neither its jihadist slogans nor its violent tactics find a receptive audience among millions of protesters. Contrary to the dominant narrative, Arabs and Muslims have never “hated” America and the West but rather admire our democratic institutions, free elections and civil liberties. The Arab Spring widened the divide between al-Qaeda’s ideology and Arab aspirations.
Although al-Qaeda’s low-level violence will probably persist for the near future, the rot that has set in is unstoppable. It would take a miracle to revive al-Qaeda Central.
As President Obama said in his statement Sunday night, “Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader. He was a mass murderer.” Closure is therefore needed — for all those who lost loved ones and for the “war on terror,” which has exacted a heavy toll in blood, treasure and America’s standing in the world. One hopes that bin Laden’s demise will mark the fall of al-Qaeda and the end of its grip on the American imagination.
Fawaz A. Gerges is director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science and author of the forthcoming “The Rise and Fall of al-Qaeda.”