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Al-Qaeda is out of the headlines that just might be the whole idea

The death of Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza should put the focus on the group’s new modus operandi — keeping a low-profile

By Jason Burke  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Do you remember al-Qaeda?

Not the al-Qaeda of today that no one pays any attention to, but the one of a decade or so ago, with its sinister mastermind leader hidden in the deep cave complexes of the Hindu Kush; the “sleeper cells” all over North America; or, more realistically, its ideology that inspired young men in the UK to travel to Pakistan to be trained in the terrorist techniques used to kill more than 50 people on tube trains and a bus in London.

Probably not.

If you have given much thought to the organization in the past year or so, you are a member of a fairly select group.

This raises a profound question: How is it that a group that commanded such extraordinary, unprecedented attention across the world from 2001 to 2011 can disappear from public attention so completely?

Once, stories about new threats posed by al-Qaeda — biological weapons smeared on door knobs (false), explosives concealed as liquids and smuggled on to planes (true) filled our newspapers.

Rappers parodied its propaganda videos. Osama bin Laden’s every utterance was parsed and picked over.

He was described, wrongly, as a Muslim Che Guevara. His face was on the leather jackets of Thai bikers and T-shirts in Kenya, while his name was given to a rogue elephant in northeastern India.

The Guardian and Observer, whose pages were once replete with reports on the organization, mentioned al-Qaeda just 11 times in the past year and two of those references were prompted by the death of Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza bin Laden, which was reported by US officials last week.

When al-Qaeda did appear in speech notes of US President Donald Trump, it was misspelled.

One obvious reason for this precipitous decline in the attention given to the group has been the appalling successes of the Islamic State group in recent years, particularly its far superior use of modern media techniques and technology.

The bloody videos of its rival have overshadowed al-Qaeda’s pedestrian efforts at communication, which still often comprise tedious lectures by its wooden, uncharismatic, 68-year-old leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Could the digital revolution be to “blame?”

Although conventional wisdom is that new media provide opportunities to insurgents and extremists, al-Qaeda’s ability to command global headlines peaked well before digital technologies were widespread. Its decline occurred as they have spread.

Perhaps, like “legacy” news organizations, the group has simply struggled to adapt to the new media environment.

However, this seems inadequate as an explanation for al-Qaeda’s almost total eclipse.

There are others that are simpler.

One is that Osama bin Laden, a perfect front man with his backstory of relinquished riches and quiet authority, was killed.

Yet it is interesting that, contrary to the expectations of many, his death at the hands of US special forces at his hideout in northern Pakistan in 2011 did not create a cult following, although his name is still venerated in jihadist circles.

The real reason for its lower profile is that al-Qaeda has dramatically changed its strategy in recent years.

It now eschews spectacular attacks on Western targets, or targets in the West, in favor of a slow, careful expansion in the Sahel, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

There have been many setbacks, but this approach brings some dividends.

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