Al-Qaeda (usually translated as “the base”) was founded — in Pakistan toward the end of the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets — to channel and co-ordinate the dispersed efforts of these movements into a single campaign. It believed that striking at a universally accepted global enemy, the US, would lead to the destruction of “hypocrite” unbelieving regimes across the Muslim world in the short term and, eventually, the creation of a new ill-defined and utopian religious rule. This latter goal was long-term, a cosmic struggle, possibly indefinite and certainly undefinable in terms of time.
Aided by a range of external factors, al-Qaeda was to some extent successful in achieving its less abstract aims, striking the US hard and drawing together an unprecedented network of affiliates in the late 1990s. This then helped — particularly by the response to the Sept. 11 attacks and other operations — disseminate its ideology further than ever before in the 1990s.
However, the high point was reached around 2004 or 2005. Even as it appeared to peak, the wave of extremism was receding. Since then, the central leadership of al-Qaeda has suffered blow after blow. It is not just bin Laden who has been killed or rendered inactive, but pretty much everyone else in the senior and middle ranks of the organization. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda central, may be an effective, utterly dedicated and experienced organizer, but he lacks bin Laden’s charisma. Saif al Adel, the only other veteran leader remaining, lacks his stature and may not be at liberty at all, but detained in Iran.
Key players who few, beyond specialists, had ever heard of — such as the very capable Libyan Atiyah Abd al-Rahman — have gone. British security officials describe “al-Qaeda central” as being “hollowed out,” largely by the controversial drone strikes. Equally damaging for the group, al-Qaeda’s training infrastructure is minimal, certainly compared with the dozens of fully fledged camps that were in use on the eve of the Sept. 11 attacks. Back in 2008, according to interrogation documents, handlers were forced to admit to new recruits coming straight from Europe that their facilities unfortunately bore no resemblance to those depicted in recruiting videos.
Nothing has improved since. Volunteers are fewer than before. There are younger members rising up the thinning ranks, but this is promotion by default not merit.
Equally damaging has been the rejection by successive communities over the past two decades. Almost every attempt by al-Qaeda central to win genuine popular support has failed — in Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Polls show approval ratings for bin Laden peaking around 2004 to 2005 and then steep decline. This is particularly true when communities have direct experience of extremist violence or rule. The al-Qaeda brand is irremediably tarnished. Even bin Laden was apparently thinking of relaunching the group under a new name, his correspondence reveals.
The two most spectacular attacks in recent years — in Algeria and the strike on Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants from the Lashkar-e-Taiba organization — were carried out by entities that have, in the first instance, tenuous connections with al-Qaeda’s senior leadership and, in the second, none at all. This indicates the degree to which the remnant led by al-Zawahiri have become, at best, only one player among many.