When Osama bin Laden was still alive, intelligence experts envisioned one of three outcomes for al-Qaeda in the event of his death.
The first was that it would have no effect at all, because the group had made operational contingencies for such a crisis. The second was that it would embolden al-Qaeda to undertake even more gruesome attacks.
The third was that it would cripple the global terror network that bin Laden had created.
A year after his death in Abbottabad, Pakistan, at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs, security watchers say events seem to support the third scenario.
“Al-Qaeda as an organization, as far as the core is concerned, is pretty much irrelevant,” says Scott Stewart, vice-president of tactical intelligence for Stratfor, a geopolitical analysis firm based in Austin, Tex.
Wesley Wark, a Canadian security expert who teaches at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto, concurs.
“The organization remains on the run. It seems to be in eclipse, if not in precipitous decline,” he says.
In the past year, Wark says there’s been “very little organized al-Qaeda activity.” There have been few public utterances from bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and “rumours of dissension in the senior al-Qaeda ranks.”
Al-Qaeda’s changing focus
Bin Laden established al-Qaeda — Arabic for “the base” — in the late 1980s, while he was living in Saudi Arabia. In its earliest incarnation, the Sunni militant group was a means of training Muslim fighters to help repel the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Subsequent events, however, refocused bin Laden’s fury.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, bin Laden volunteered his trained militia to Saudi Arabia, which feared that Saddam Hussein might annex part of its desert kingdom. The House of Saud rejected bin Laden’s offer, instead allowing the U.S. to base its military operations against Hussein on Saudi soil.
Feeling this arrangement blasphemed the Muslim holy land, bin Laden publicly split with the Saudi leadership and went into exile in Sudan. He began to plot attacks against Western targets as well as autocratic regimes in Africa and the Middle East.
Under bin Laden’s direction, al-Qaeda carried out a number of attacks in the next decade, including the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, which killed six people; the 2000 bombing of the navy destroyer U.S.S. Cole in Aden, Yemen, which killed 17 soldiers and injured 39 others; and, most notoriously, the attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
Wark says the enormity of 9/11, and the international anti-terrorism campaign that followed, made it extremely difficult for bin Laden’s group to coordinate anything on a comparable scale.
As well, many groups that had once made common cause with al-Qaeda — like the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in Algeria — eventually turned away from bin Laden’s extremism and obsession with what he called “the far enemy.”
“Even before bin Laden was killed, this was a terrorist group in decline,” says Wark, saying that many like-minded organizations felt “that al-Qaeda had led the Muslim world down the wrong path.”
Wark says the U.S. strategy of “decapitating” al-Qaeda leadership through drone strikes and other targeted attacks has had a large hand in neutralizing the organization.
But equally significant was the Arab Spring, which showed that democratic movements are ultimately more effective than orchestrated terror in driving out a dictatorial regime.
“The Arab Spring was one sign of how little al-Qaeda’s extremist message had taken hold in the imagination of Arab societies,” says Wark.
“It didn’t have much traction and people were looking for other kinds of political outcomes and solutions to autocratic and corrupt governments.”
While it would appear that al-Qaeda has been significantly compromised, its name continues to crop up in a number of regional conflicts. There have been suggestions that it is allied with the Haqqani network in Afghanistan and Ansar Dine in northern Mali, for example.
But in a column for the Atlantic Monthly last September, Alex Fisher argued the media have a tendency to overstate al-Qaeda’s clout.
“Our ever-rising expectations of their capabilities,” he writes, “have so exaggerated their strength and reach in our collective imaginations that we are ready to see them behind nearly every blast.”
By the same token, Fisher points out that bin Laden’s creation, as well as separate yet kindred extremist groups, have exploited the al-Qaeda brand.
When the media describe a group like Boko Haram as “al-Qaeda-affiliated,” it bestows a greater legitimacy on the Nigerian group’s cause and improves their recruitment chances. The benefit to al-Qaeda, Fisher argues, is that it “can claim virtually any Islamist militant group or gun-waving Muslim as part of their dark, global army.”
Still, security experts say that while these militant groups may have co-opted the al-Qaeda brand, those such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb aren't taking orders from central command.
"These groups are acting separately without any coordination with al-Qaeda," say Jabeur Fathally, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and the author of an upcoming book on Islamic jihad and international human law.
"For these groups, al-Qaeda is a model of inspiration, no less, no more."
That said, security agencies still warn of al-Qaeda adherents abroad.
'Open source jihad'
Last week, Richard Fadden, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, suggested that al-Qaeda had switched to a new tactic — namely, “open source jihad,” in which radicalized individuals are using the network’s teachings to carry out solo attacks.
Fadden reported April 23 that CSIS believes up to 60 Canadians have been to the Middle East to receive al-Qaeda training in recent years.
One prominent international example is Mohamed Merah, the French national and self-described al-Qaeda militant who shot three children, a teacher and three paratroopers during a week-long terror campaign in France. He died in a gunfight with police in Toulouse on March 22.
The “lone wolf” model of terrorism also made headlines in November 2009, after U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan went on a murderous rampage at the Fort Hood military complex near Killeen, Tex, killing 16 soldiers.
A subsequent investigation of the Fort Hood shooting showed that Hasan had been in email contact with Anwar al-Awlaki, the senior al-Qaeda operative killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011.
Stratfor's Stewart said Hasan's shooting spree used a tactic that has caused growing concern in the security community.
“We wrote a piece on [lone wolf terrorists] the day before the Fort Hood shootings, talking about this trend, and there we have it,” says Stewart. “Simple attacks, using readily available weapons.”
Stewart says it’s likely that al-Qaeda is relying on this type of strategy to maintain its international profile. But he points out that it is difficult to find individuals with the discipline and organizational skill to pull off solo attacks without inadvertently tipping off counterterrorism agents.
Even so, he’s far from confident that the War on Terror is over.
“What I’m concerned about is the ideology of jihadism, how it’s influencing these regional franchises,” says Stewart.
He cites so-called "franchises" such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which currently occupies a number of cities in Yemen, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which is claiming parts of northern Mali and is thought to be enforcing sharia law there.
“The ideology survives, so even if we were able to blow up al-Zawahiri and the rest of the al-Qaeda core, you’d still have this ideology popping up. And ideology is more difficult to kill than people.”