The Arabic Media Shack blog has launched a five-part series on the social, political and historical context of Al Qaeda. Parts One and Two are already up and they’re worth a read. The short version is that regardless of its relative operational strength today as opposed to seven years ago, Al Qaeda is at its very origins an essentially weak movement, issued from a longer historical current that had largely spent itself by the time its last lingering fanatics switched tactics to target the U.S. directly. Tactically dangerous by the nature of the terrorist threat, yes, but not a longterm strategic threat due to its lack of broad appeal within the Islamic world.
As for the strategic novelty introduced by Bin Laden, namely using terrorist attacks to lure the U.S. into a Middle East quagmire, we’ve certainly played along in both Afghanistan and Iraq. But despite the strain those conflicts are putting on our military, and the possibility that they still might result in decisive defeats for our initial strategic objectives, the reason they won’t lead to a decisive military defeat and a subsequent American retreat from the region is that Bin Laden’s second assumption (that the conflicts would rally Muslims to the Al Qaeda cause) has not materialized. Both Iraq and Afghanistan have been re-nationalized as conflicts, even if there is still some foreign jihadi presence, and the initial wave of foreign jihadis was never as overwhelming as Bin Laden anticipated. In other words, Bin Laden had a better grasp of what drives America than of what drives the Muslim world. In designing Al Qaeda, he created America’s perfect enemy, but failed to turn it into a strategic threat.