You'd think being the most feared terrorist on Earth would be the kind of job where you're guaranteed a good sit until you can retire or you get killed. But in the current issue of Foreign Policy, Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann round up the available information on Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda and conclude that while the group can still kill people, they've lost more popularity since 2001 than Matchbox Twenty:
It's not because the United States is winning—most Muslims still have extremely negative attitudes toward the United States because of its wars in the Muslim world and history of abuses of detainees. It's because Muslims have largely turned against Osama bin Laden's dark ideology. Favorable ratings of the terrorist leader and the suicide bombings he advocates fell by half in the two most-populous Islamic countries, Indonesia and Pakistan, between 2002 and 2009. In Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's ruthless campaign of sectarian violence obliterated the support al Qaeda had enjoyed there, deeply damaging its brand across the Arab world.
The jihad has also dramatically failed to achieve its central aims. Bin Laden's primary goal has always been regime change in the Middle East, sweeping away the governments from Cairo to Riyadh with Taliban-style rule. He wants Western troops and influence out of the region and thinks that attacking the "far enemy," the United States, will cause U.S.-backed Arab regimes—the "near enemy"—to crumble. For all his leadership skills and charisma, however, bin Laden has accomplished the opposite of what he intended. Nearly a decade after the 9/11 attacks, his last remaining safe havens in the Hindu Kush are under attack, and U.S. soldiers patrol the streets of Kandahar and Baghdad.
And here I've been thinking the near enemy was the Los Angeles Times and the far enemy was the New York Times.
* The total number of Qaeda-trained assets is probably fewer than 20,000.
* Some of the slack of training and deploying terrorists has been taken up by Qaeda affiliates in Pakistan. That appears to have been the case with alleged Times Square bombing washout Faisal Shahzad. Although Bergen and Tiedemann don't mention it, that outsourcing seems to bring some quality control issues. Or at least, it's a pretty big comedown from 9/11 to a plot depending on hopelessly faulty explosives, an easily traced vehicle and the possibility of finding good parking in Times Square. (Thanks to Nell Scovell for that last observation.)
* The group's public relations efforts peaked three years ago and have been dwindling since.
* The infamous "Al Qaeda Number Three Man" job continues to offer less job security than the gig as drummer for Spinal Tap.
* Predator drones are the favorite tool of President Barack Obama. He has already ordered more Predator strikes than President George W. Bush did in eight years, and he obscenely joked about Predator strikes last week during his supposedly fall-down funny routine at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Yet judging by actual containment of violence, the Predator campaign doesn't seem to be working.
The gravest evidence of al Qaeda's dwindling Q Rating was an asburd online chat Ayman al-Zawahiri held with jihadists, in which the audience gave a chilly reception to the good doctor. The al Qaeda number two man could have saved himself the trouble by reading this open letter written almost seven years ago by Charles Paul Freund, Reason's own Hakimullah Mehsud:
Osama bin Laden's very first words directed to the West, as the Taliban were being overthrown, evoked lost Islamic Spain. But the glories of Spain's Umayyads were destroyed not by European Inquisitors; they were ruined by armies of North African proto-Islamists who were as angry and as destructive and as crazy as you are. Cordoba and Toledo and Granada achieved their golden ages not through the efforts of people like you, but despite them. In the course of the struggle between an Islam of achievement and grace, and an Islam engulfed by righteous futility, have you never noticed that even Muslims prefer to forget people like you and to remember the other side? Even you and Osama, it seems, attempt to co-opt precisely the Islamic history you are attempting to negate.
Courtesy of the Facebook page of Don Graham, whose flagship magazine I uncharitably made fun of a few hours ago.