Few Americans knew of the existence of a group named al-Qaida before September 2001, much less anything significant about its leader, Osama bin Laden. Despite having been behind several attacks targeting the U.S., as well as declaring war on America in 2008, bin Laden and his movement were far from the minds of Americans on Sept. 10. All that would change in a few short hours.
After a decade-long fight to suppress the terrorist threat to the U.S., that being primarily al-Qaida, one might ask what has become of the organization: how has the global war on terrorism, conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the death of Osama bin Laden affected the once-thriving terror network?
Following 9/11, al-Qaida saw unprecedented growth. The retaliation of the U.S. in the following months provided many young, disenchanted individuals with a tangible enemy, an entity they perceived as attacking their religious tradition and way of life, which in turn encouraged radicalization and overwhelming recruitment to, and support for, organizations such as al-Qaida.
Terrorist activity inspired by Islamic extremism grew exponentially, both in terms of the number of attacks as well as their resulting lethality. Between 2001 and 2006 alone there were more than three times the number of religious terrorist attacks than took place in the prior 30 years. Most will also recall the major attacks in Madrid, London and Bali, all of which were carried out by either al-Qaida members or sympathizers.
Several factors, however, have led to the gradual deterioration of al-Qaida in recent years. While the U.S. government’s strategy to destroy the organization from the top down did little to alleviate the underlying causes of recruitment to terrorist organizations, it did deal a significant blow to al-Qaida by removing a great number of its leaders and key operatives. This resulted in the group becoming more disconnected and lacking a strong central leadership, which became all the more evident in May this year when Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan. Despite initial signs of rage and promises of vengeance for his death, little consequence has been seen as of yet and al-Qaida has struggled to regroup and reconcile competing ideas within its leadership.
That said, al-Qaida should not be written off just yet. The recent upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa has given renewed opportunity to such groups. Many of the previous autocratic regimes suppressed extremist movements, such as in Egypt and Libya. With those nations now in transition, it is feasible that al-Qaida will seek more prominence as those societies seek to forge political and social stability. Egypt is a less likely target, although Libya will give such an opportunity as will Yemen, where al-Qaida already controls major parts of the country. Afghanistan and Pakistan also continue to be safe havens for al-Qaida members.
Other cases give additional reason for concern. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, based in Algeria, is believed to be closely connected with other Islamic terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab in Somalia (responsible for preventing aid from reaching the dying in the famine-wrought country) as well as Boko Haram in Nigeria, which this month bombed a UN outpost in Abuja. Needless to say, then, al-Qaida is far from disappearing altogether.
The coming months will indicate much. As societies across the Middle East and North Africa seek stability, and as sympathizers ponder the death of bin Laden, al-Qaida may grow stronger. The hope, and suspicion of many, is that the newly democratized societies of the Arab Spring will want little to do with al-Qaida and render the group as outcast as it was previously. Al-Qaida has done little to help the people themselves. Other groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah have created political and social structures that offer more practical, material answers to the people. Al-Qaida has largely relied on violence, something that has limited their support in more moderate communities.
To suggest that al-Qaida will not be a formidable enemy for the U.S. in years to come is perhaps a hasty assumption. However, events over recent months and years show promise that the group’s dream of destroying the West and forging a united Islamic world will meet the same fate as the one who dreamed it.