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.
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.
Among them, a solid presence in important parts of the Islamic world, loyal participants in high-profile conflicts, a distance from the Islamic State’s egregious brutality and a significant decline in attention paid to it by Western policymakers.
This leads to an important conclusion: Al-Qaeda’s eclipse is not just the natural passing of a once-dangerous group.
US Acting Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights Nathan Sales, the Department of State’s counter-terrorism coordinator, told reporters that “what we see today is an al-Qaeda that i s as strong as it has ever been.”
It is a deliberate choice, which implies that acquiring the high profile the group once enjoyed was a conscious decision, too.
After all, very often what you turn off, you can turn back on.
This says a lot about the nature of terrorism and the reaction it produces.
Osama Bin Laden became notorious by design, not accident.
He used violence to radicalize supporters, mobilize backing and terrorize enemies.
He built his brand, in the days before digital media, by ensuring that what he did received vast publicity.
Not only did he understand that those targeted by terrorism extrapolate from a single act to imagine a general threat — one bus has been attacked, so all are now seen as dangerous; one office block in one city has been destroyed, so all such buildings are now at risk — but that sympathizers did so too.
For everyone, including many policymakers, a small number of spectacular and very violent gestures suggested a power and potential to harm that was very much greater than the group ever really possessed.
Even the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks involved just 19 hijackers, plus a relatively light support network and a training camp or two.
Most of its operations involved fewer people and resources.
The cave complexes and those secret weapons did not actually exist.
This is not to say the group never posed a threat — it did, as the appalling carnage that resulted from its attacks attests.
However, for much of its existence there was very much less to al-Qaeda than met the eye.
One aim of the violence was to prompt a massive and, in many ways, counterproductive response from the West. In this, too al-Qaeda was successful.
No one knows which direction the late and unlamented Hamza bin Laden might have taken al-Qaeda had he assumed leadership.
A UN Security Council report last week disclosed that al-Zawahiri is in poor health with “questions over his longevity.”
If a new head of al-Qaeda decides to ramp up the global profile of the group with a few attacks on Western interests, would we respond any differently than we did between 2001 and 2011?
I doubt it.
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