The result is that the centripetal force the group once exerted has gone and we have returned to a situation similar to that of the old “pre-al-Qaeda” days with a whole series of different local groups involved in local struggles with negligible central coordination.
There are major differences with the previous period, of course. Decades of violence have led to much higher structural levels of radicalization and polarization. The technology and tactics used by all protagonists in these current “shadow wars” has evolved. Then there are the consequences of the Arab spring — for the Sahel and Syria and elsewhere. Nonetheless, the unthinking use of the term al-Qaeda, as has so often been the case in the past, obscures rather than illuminate the real chaotic and fractured, if still dynamic, nature of modern Islamist militancy. This is something Cameron’s own security services will have told him.
Of course a threat remains. However, the big attacks — those that could potentially pose something a little closer to “an existential threat” — are unlikely. These would need to be in a major European or US city or involve at least one passenger jet.
If British intelligence, despite having a team devoted for months to checking and rechecking every possible potential lead, could not come up with a single credible threat to the London Olympics last year and their US counterparts were confident enough to declare a similar lack of immediate danger during the recent presidential campaign, it appears fair to assume that bombs in London or New York are a fairly distant prospect for the moment. The biggest threat to airplanes comes from a single highly proficient bombmaker in the Yemen.
The location of the major spectacular attacks appears closely related to al-Qaeda’s ability to focus the dispersed energies of contemporary Sunni Islamist extremism. Through the 1990s, attacks were restricted to targets — in Pakistan, Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere — which were distant from Western populations, with the exception of the first abortive plot to bomb the World Trade Center in New York in 1993. US troops who were attacked in Somalia in that year in the famous Blackhawk Down episode had simply strayed into someone else’s war.
By the late 1990s, US interests were being attacked, but in east Africa or the Yemen. It was only through the first six years of the past decade that the violence approached the West — first in Indonesia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, then in Madrid and London. Since then the dynamic has reversed, tracking the new weakness of the al-Qaeda senior leadership. The big attacks still come — but in Islamabad, Mumbai, Kabul, Baghdad and now in the deserts of the Sahara. Nor do they strike targets that resonate throughout the Muslim world. A gas refinery in southern Algeria is not the Pentagon.
Partly this is due to vastly improved security precautions and competent intelligence services that cooperated much more effectively.