The Sept. 11 attacks made a household name out of al-Qaida, an organization whose existence had earlier concerned only intelligence professionals and a handful of journalists. As 2012 begins, al-Qaida has suffered a series of harsh blows, leading some to conclude that the once-predominant purveyor of terrorism and extremist ideology in much of the world has become a spent force, one without much of a future.
To be sure, 2011 was a devastating year for the organization. But al-Qaida is not about to fade quietly into the sunset. Like a virus that mutates to survive its host’s most potent defenses, al-Qaida is a nimble, adaptable organism. It is already seeking to make the most of a situation that, undoubtedly, has become a threat to its survival.
Al-Qaida suffered three major setbacks during the past year. Most notably, Osama bin Laden, its long-time leader, iconic ideologue and key financier, was killed by U.S. forces during a daring raid in Pakistan. Equally costly was the unexpected success of the wave of Arab revolutions that swept through the region. When Arab populations discovered they had the power to overthrow hated dictators, they also proved one of al-Qaida’s principal arguments wrong: The extremist jihadist ideology of bin Laden and his followers maintained that the only way to topple those regimes was through violent attacks against the U.S. and its friends.