I was wrong and I’ll happily admit it. Recently, I argued here and here that the death of Osama bin Laden meant very little and that contrary to popular belief, Al-Qaeda was actually on the rise, digging into its offshoot groups and splintering its mission to wreak havoc on western targets throughout the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. But here we are, on the one-year anniversary of bin Laden’s death, and the story of his once-prominent terrorist group has fizzled out like a bad batch of sparklers.
Sure, there may be an attempt to take advantage of the anniversary by radical terrorist-wannabees seeking some primetime news coverage. And security wonks like Seth Jones over at Foreign Policy are likely to argue that folks like myself should “think again” and that Al-Qaeda minus bin Laden is still effective and dangerous. But the cold, hard facts tell us otherwise: Bin Laden’s dream is dead.
Eleven years ago, the world’s most notorious terrorist was on top of the world. His group had splintered the Twin Towers — an unbelievable feat — and years later claimed responsibility for the high-profile 2005 London bombings and the 2008 Danish Embassy attacks. His video messages circulated throughout the Arab world and the United States, Al-Qaeda’s sworn enemy, was bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and also drowning in a financial crisis. Bin Laden gleefully proclaimed that the American empire would soon collapse.
But it was his own organization that was crumbling beneath him.
By the mid-2000s, the United States military picked off leader after leader, lieutenant after lieutenant, and with an increased offensive in Iraq and Afghanistan, bastions of Al-Qaeda support, approval for the group began to slip drastically, dropping from nearly 70 percent to a minuscule 20 percent. In the Anbar Province and in Yemen, bin Laden’s acolytes fostered ill will among populations they hoped would be sympathetic to their anti-Western cause. The Christian Science Monitor reports similar trends elsewhere: “In Indonesia in 2003, 59 percent had confidence in him. By last year, that number was 26 percent. In the Palestinian territories, his approval dropped from 72 percent in 2003 to 34 percent last year. And in Pakistan, he fell from 46 percent to 21 percent.”
On the run, bin Laden was forced into his famous Abbottabad compound, not moving for more than six years. Videos of him lounging in a recliner, remote control in hand, cannot underscore his irrelevance enough.
Of course, the recent Arab Spring also points to his ideology’s lack of traction. From Tunis to Bahrain, populations poured out into the streets in protest of authoritarianism, corruption, and violence. Their calls for freedom were a nail in the coffin for bin Laden’s violent legacy. CNN National Security analyst Peter Bergen writes that, “One of the striking things in the TV coverage is that not one American flag was burned, not one Israeli flag was burned. Al-Qaida ideas and bin Laden’s ideas were just completely irrelevant.”
It has now been six years since Al-Qaeda carried out a major attack outside of Iraq or Afghanistan (the latest were the 2005 Amman attacks that killed 60). Just days before bin Laden’s death, he moped about the group’s ineffectiveness and confessed to “disaster after disaster.” President Obama’s top counterterrorism aide said recently that the terrorist ringleader’s plight was so bad, he even considered changing the name of the group in an effort to rebrand it and possibly attract new recruits.
In an ultimate act of desperation, it was recently revealed that those who have taken up the terrorist torch hid their plans for an attack on Europe in a pornographic video called “Kick Ass” and a file marked “Sexy Tanja” (Question: What’s worse than a plotting terrorist? Answer: A horny plotting terrorist).
To be sure, there are plenty of “lone wolves” who, claiming that they are part of Al-Qaeda, plan and execute an attack or two. These events are unfortunate, not only for the destruction and the death that they cause, but also because they result in the false perception among many that this once-organized and effective terrorist network is still relevant and dangerous today.