It’s only natural that Bin Laden’s death will open up discussions about the future of Al-Qaeda, and its chances or otherwise to continue as a strong and effective organisation. Clearly, the infamous group will be affected by the death of its leader and point of inspiration. A closer look at the group shows that it has been declining for some time and its demise may soon follow its leader’s. The beginning of the end for Al-Qaeda had in fact begun well before its leader was liquidated.
In September 2009, on the eighth anniversary of 9/11, I wrote an article about the “Demise of Al-Qaeda,” published in Arabic and translated into several languages. The extensive analysis proposed that the age of Al-Qaeda is over; that the idea of it is obsolete and the organisation was in retreat. My analysis stirred quite a controversy; those refuting it far outnumbered those who concurred, and the majority thought the thesis was premature and unsubstantiated.
I will recap why I thought Al-Qaeda was already obsolete two years ago, and will look at developments since until Bin Laden’s assassination that have all proven my prediction. Al-Qaeda is clinically dead and all that remains is its death certificate.
Over the past three years, Al-Qaeda has suffered serious and constant fractures in its organisational structure. Most of the group’s leaders have been killed, especially the top tier surrounding Al-Qaeda’s leader Osama Bin Laden and his ideological adviser Ayman Al-Zawahri. Around 20 key leaders were killed over the past three years alone, and it is difficult for Al-Qaeda to replace them.
Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda’s ability to recruit and mobilise in regions that traditionally served as reserves of human and financial resources have dried up. For example, Egyptians are no longer prominent leaders of the group, although since its creation in 1998 and until recently Egyptians dominated the leadership of Al-Qaeda. The number of Saudi Arabian members has also dropped, despite the fact that since the US occupation of Iraq in 2003 they had been the largest and most important elements in Al-Qaeda. Reports also show that recruitment and opportunities in African regions north of the desert and coast have also declined, such as in the desert regions of Algeria, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Chad and Libya where the topography is similar to Afghanistan.
There is also a big drop in the number of groups in collusion or alliance with Al-Qaeda, which is directly reflected in Al-Qaeda’s weakened state. The fighting Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya in Libya put down their weapons, chose to revise their ideology and reconcile with the regime; the Salafi Group for the Call and Battle in Algeria is also debilitated not because of attacks by the military and security forces in Algeria, but because many of its members chose to return from the mountains and benefit from the “mending and conciliation” law.
Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda’s branch in the Arab Peninsula was forced to relocate its headquarters from Saudi Arabia to Yemen, after years of Saudi Arabia serving as a vital base not only for operations but also recruitment, mobilisation and funds. In Iraq, the power of its regional branch Al-Qaeda in the Country of the Two Rivers has dropped significantly. In fact, many reports claim that the majority of Al-Qaeda’s “strike force” has migrated to Afghanistan and Pakistan after intense targeting. At the same time, it appears that the “Islamic State of Iraq” is no longer a viable option.
Al-Qaeda has exited critical central locations and moved to the periphery in both the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Al-Qaeda’s decline is unimportant in itself if it wasn’t for a plunge in the group’s inspirational value, because otherwise it could have simply revived itself. It is certain that the group has lost much of its allure and ability to inspire Muslim youth, and that for years it has been in a nosedive. This confirms that Al-Qaeda’s retreat cannot be reversed by reorganising and re-launching itself.
Al-Qaeda’s ideology has been strongly criticised in recent years on several levels, including in a large number of articles by an array of Islamic writers who ripped apart the notion of Al-Qaeda and tarnished its appeal. These writings cover an array of schools of thought, jurisprudence and politics from across the Arab and Muslim spectrum. At the same time, years of Al-Qaeda operations created a negative reaction to them in Muslim societies that could no longer remain silent to spite the enemies of Al-Qaeda, namely despotic regimes and Western forces.
Al-Qaeda’s consent to carry out jihad in Muslim countries was rejected by all Islamic groups because it was a historically unprecedented principle in Muslim societies. Accordingly, Al-Qaeda was not only rejected by official religious institutions loyal to the rulers, but also by Islamic groups known to oppose the regimes in power.
Another critical factor in Al-Qaeda’s decline is revisions by jihadists that undermined the principles that united these groups with Al-Qaeda in the jihadist movement. These revisions began at the birth of Al-Qaeda but took about a decade to mature and generate enough power to play an influential role. In Egypt, this began with Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya and then the Jihad Group. Later, it occurred with Algeria’s armed Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya then the Salafi Group for the Call and Battle. Such revisions continued to expand and gain more influence, and today Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya in Libya has also declared a number of revisions.
Irrespective of the criticisms levelled at these revisions, their context and circumstances, which undermine their authenticity, they greatly impacted the jihadist outlook championed by Al-Qaeda. Accordingly, the strongest form of criticism was based in jihadist principles by former jihadists, not from the ideological enemies of Al-Qaeda, making it more convincing, poignant and potent.
Why the decline?
There are several important developments behind Al-Qaeda’s retreat; some caused by international conditions, but more prominently the condition of Islam itself. The end of Bush’s term and the changes that occurred in US policies helped end Al-Qaeda’s influence. It is irrelevant here to discuss the authenticity of the new US administration’s intentions or even its willingness to apply this in actual policy, but what is certain is that conciliatory discourse that declares (and insists) on a desire to defeat the clash of civilisations, which Bush’s rightwing administration had promoted, greatly influenced the cognizance of Islamic movements, especially jihadist groups.
This discourse undermined much of Al-Qaeda’s ideological artillery and detracted from its ability to inspire angry Muslim youth who were indignant over what was perceived as intentional and repeated US violations, even on the symbolic level. Meanwhile, a number of import developments occurred in the condition of Islam that greatly influenced the defeat of Al-Qaeda, most prominently, the entry of Islamic trends and groups in confrontations between Al-Qaeda and regimes in power.
In recent years, the number of Islamic political and ideological figures entering the political scene has surged in several countries. The Justice and Development Party came to power in Turkey and became exemplary; Justice and Development also took the lead on Morocco’s political stage; the Muslim Brotherhood entered an alliance with the political regime in Algeria, participated in the new state in Iraq, won the Palestinian elections by a landslide whereby they controlled parliament and formed a government. At the same time, Islamists came to power in Somalia, while Salafi groups became active in Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon and Yemen.
These Islamic forces now became part of the battle not in defence of the state being targeted by Al-Qaeda but as champions of peaceful political action that is their raison d’etre on the political scene. The conflict had now moved to the realm of Islamic activism and was no longer confined to a struggle between one force (albeit the most violent) on the one hand and regimes and governments on the other. It became a battle between opposing and sometimes contradictory Islamic perspectives, which caused clashes and confrontations.
The onus is no longer on ruling regimes and secular leaders to fight Al-Qaeda; in fact, the strongest opponents of Al-Qaeda in many places are Islamists themselves who are battling for their raison d’etre.
The last nail in Al-Qaeda’s coffin is the revolution underway in the Arab and Muslim world triggered at the end of last year. This is almost the polar opposite to what the group had propagated and worked on and for. These are popular revolutions open to all sectors in society and not the work of secret cells; they are peaceful and don’t invoke the principle of change by the barrel of a gun, which Bin Laden advocated; their demands are democracy and social justice, which is a common factor in the free world, unlike Bin Laden’s theory segregating infidels from believers.
In the end, these revolutions succeeded in something Al-Qaeda failed to do for many years: toppling some of the strongest, most oppressive and despotic regimes, with minimal loss of life and resources. The martyrs of Egypt’s great revolution are fewer than the victims of one Al-Qaeda operation in its open-ended global jihadist plot, which has no political goals worth the sacrifice.
The Bin Laden project died months before its leader. It died at the hands of the young Arab revolutionaries who realised that they can take charge of their destiny without enlisting into plots of the unknown.