Nine years later, the US has succeeded in marginalising Al Qaeda as a third-order nuisance, who might one day get lucky but still are discredited, weakened and increasingly marginal. Al Qaeda’s vision of inspirational violence rousing the masses to a great uprising against the apostate regimes and client states of America has not been realised or anything close to it. The longed-for Caliphate and new Islamist empire is just a rumour, it turns out most Muslims aren’t up for a global jihad, and that tracking, killing and capturing terrorists does make it harder for them to carry out complex, mass casualty attacks. So talk of terrorist threats being severe and the war on terror being nothing but a failure is simply wrong:
Bin Laden’s problem from the very beginning was that while (polls show) a majority of Muslims around the world might have agreed with his charge of U.S. malfeasance in its dealings in the Middle East, only a tiny minority identified with terrorism as a response. Despite the virulently anti-American attitudes revealed in opinion surveys in parts of the Muslim world after 9/11, very few people were prepared to condone attacks on innocent civilians. That’s why so many people in Egypt and Pakistan bought into conspiracy theories about the CIA or Israel’s Mossad being behind the attacks.The ubiquity of bin Laden’s image in the wake of the attacks suggested that he might become a kind of jihadist Che Guevara, destined to live on long after his death on an endless stream of T-shirts and tchotchkes. (Of course, he’d first have to be killed to test that theory.) But there’s another connection: Like the Saudi jihadist, the Argentinian revolutionary had mistakenly assumed that simply demonstrating through violence that a hated enemy was not invulnerable would automatically rouse the masses to rebellion.
However, this has come at great cost. Al Qaeda baited the US into a crisis in the Gulf, a protracted and dubious war in Afghanistan, and a renewed confrontation with Iran, an erosion of constitutional liberties, and an acceleration of America’s economic decline. And because America won’t fully acknowledge its successes, the Al Qaeda threat still has the power to terrify and mobilise on a scale well beyond its limited and damaged capabilities.
As Phyrrus said after an expensive battle with Rome, another victory like this, and we are undone.