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(photo credit: AP)
There's good news, and there's bad news. The good news is that al-Qaida has suffered significant setbacks since September 11, 2001. It has lost its training bases in Afghanistan, and it has lost thousands of fighters and several senior commanders as well. It has been dispersed and decentralized.
The bad news, ironically, is that al-Qaida has been dispersed and decentralized. Like in the Midrashic depiction of the plague of frogs - the more the Egyptians struck the pests, the more they multiplied - Western efforts to destroy al-Qaida have only made the organization harder to stop.
"The atomization of al-Qaida has spawned numerous autonomous and semi-autonomous cells after 9/11," notes Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, "so the frequency of attacks planned by members of al-Qaida and members of the global jihad movement has actually increased."
"Al-Qaida is not your typical criminal organization," adds Peter Bergen.
"Typically, when you arrest or capture the top tier of a criminal organization, you put them out of business. Sadly, al-Qaida was still capable of carrying out the July 7, 2005, London attack and of preparing the most recent airline plot though it was averted. So al-Qaida is not dead."
Even if al-Qaida were dead, Gunaratna argues, it wouldn't mean an end to the scourge of jihadist mayhem.
"Five years after 9/11, the threat to the world from terrorism has clearly moved beyond al-Qaida," Gunaratna says. "In the face of adversity, it has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to integrate disparate jihadist groups into a post-9/11 vision of perpetual war against the West. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have built a movement that will outlast them. So, even if the al-Qaida leadership is hunted down and the group destroyed, the mission of attacking the West that al-Qaida popularized and articulated as a religious duty will continue."
One of the greatest difficulties the West has encountered in confronting the jihadists, says Bergen, is weakening an enemy that has no permanent address and no real strategic interests to lose, other than its ideological motivation.
"What's the center of gravity of this global jihad movement? How do you decapitate it? No one has come up with a containment strategy... and I'm not really sure what the answer is, myself," Bergen says. "I think, though, that 'binladenism' is a set of bad ideas that will simply implode of its own weight over time."
Now we're back to good news: the ultimate goal, the grand vision, of al-Qaida and the global jihad movement.
"I don't think it has one," says Bergen. "I mean, if you were to ask Osama bin Laden what he's really for, I think he'd say that he's for renewing the caliphate. Now, that's appealing for a lot of Muslims, in a vague sort of way... but what Osama bin Laden would like is to have Taliban-style theocracies stretching from Afghanistan to Morocco. And I don't think most Muslims want that. In fact, I think people understand that Hassan Turabi's Sudan, and the Taliban's Afghanistan, are not what they're looking for."
As analysts like Bergen and Gunaratna explain, jihad is fuelled by its ability to captivate young Muslims around the world. While Western societies try to deter that threat by handing the movement military defeats, Bergen believes that jihad will eventually succumb to opposition from within.
"These groups tend to kill a lot of Muslims and civilians," Bergen notes.
"For example, in the case of [the Indonesian terrorist group] Jemaah Islamiyah, Indonesians have rejected this group and a lot of clerics have openly been critical of their perception of jihad." Ultimately, he believes, "Muslims are going to decide this conflict for themselves."