Al Qaeda has not experienced a sudden slump in support. It has been in decline for many yearsby Jason Burke / July 26, 2008 / Leave a comment
In May, two articles by western experts on al Qaeda suggested that Bin Laden’s terrorist organisation might be in sharp decline. Both were meticulously researched and received wide attention. Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, research fellows at New York University, and Lawrence Wright of the New Yorker are all authoritative observers of Islamic militancy. The article by the former pair, in the New Republic, focused on disillusion among ex-militants with the strategy adopted over the last ten years by the al Qaeda leadership of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. This discontent, they said, was the result partly of the strategy’s failure to achieve its aims and partly the appalling effects of the violence it has entailed, and they linked it to a broader decline in the popularity of al Qaeda and its ideology across both the Islamic world and immigrant communities in the west.
Wright’s article focused more closely on Egypt, which continues to provide a disproportionate number of the key figures of the al Qaeda leadership. Wright told the back story to the recent rejection of violent jihad by one of al Qaeda’s original strategists, the imprisoned Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, aka Dr al-Fadl. Al-Fadl, from his cell, has written a book explaining why his previous works were misguided.
All three writers are right to speak of the divisions within al Qaeda and a decline in its popularity. But some of the excitement about the two articles has been based on the false idea that al Qaeda has suddenly split or that there has been a recent slump in its appeal. In fact, the various elements of the al Qaeda phenomenon—the hardcore leadership, a network of networks, the autonomous “home-grown” actors and the ideology—have never been very unified. Al Qaeda’s bid to raise the “Islamic masses” in a general revolt against what they see as apostate powers in the middle east and the west has been losing momentum for many years.
This lack of unity has been evident since the foundation of al Qaeda in the late 1980s. Ending this disunity was in fact one of the main aims of the founders. Afghan veterans of the period enjoy relating the various spats that divided the “Arabs,” and al-Fadl was a bitter enemy of al-Zawahiri even 30 years ago. Things failed to get much better in the 1990s. Groups from Algeria to Indonesia rejected Bin Laden’s offers of logistical…