The American author of a number of Al Qaeda books, Peter Bergen, points to the series of polls showing the degree to which support for Bin Laden, the group and their methodology, always far from unanimous, was falling rapidly in key countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia and elsewhere even before the events of this year in the Arab world. “Al Qaeda’s leaders, footsoldiers, ideas were all totally absent from the Arab spring,” he said. “When al-Zawahiri issued a statement on what was going on, it was totally ignored.” Bergen said.
In Bin Laden’s native Saudi Arabia, officials pointed out that support fell away rapidly after the first wave of terrorist attacks in the kingdom in 2003. In Afghanistan, relations between the Taliban and international militants with a global agenda remain tense.
In Europe too militants have become increasingly marginalised. Earlier, scores of young Britons sought training or combat experience alongside the Taliban each year. Now there are no more than a dozen or so, UK security sources claim. Officials at MI5 say their new tactic of early “interdiction” of any threat works well enough for things to look “boring”.
“We will have Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda-related violence for some time to come,” said Nigel Inkster, former deputy director of MI6. “But the tide has turned. Bin Laden’s ideas of setting the Muslim world ablaze and sparking a global insurgency have been and gone.” But there is no shortage of new jihadi ideologues coming up in the world.
Anwar al Awlaki, the “spiritual leader” of Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, whose sermons were attended by three of the hijackers who carried out the 9/11 attacks, is often cited as being among the possible candidates who could fill in Bin Laden’s shoes.US officials say he is a "recruiter and motivator" for Al Qaeda and skilled at using social media, including a Facebook page and YouTube, to spread his message of violent jihad. Awlaki is the only US citizen known to be on the list of targets for assassination by the CIA because of his links to past attacks against the US. Ironically, he was once invited to speak at the Pentagon as part of a defence department outreach programme to Muslims.
Awlaki is linked to multiple attempted plots against the US, by plane and by car bomb. He is also linked to one successful atrocity — the fatal shootings of 13 soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas by an American Muslim fellow soldier in November 2009. He is connected to the Times Square bombing attempt and an attempt to send explosives-filled printers to the US via courier planes.
Awlaki is now thought to be in hiding in Yemen’s rugged Shabwa or Mareb regions, an area jihadists have at times found to be a safe haven. He has so far inspired only individual terrorist attacks and it is difficult to see how he can ever put together an organisation on the scale of Al Qaeda. As jihadi groups fragment into localised outfits, it will be ever harder for an individual to inspire even the temporary sort of worldwide attention that Bin Laden did. Unless, perhaps, they can inflict something on the scale of 9/11 again. GNS