Threats of occasional terror attacks and the disruptive security precautions they necessitate may be an uncomfortable fact of life for the foreseeable future, but the latest episode may well illustrate the weakness of Osama bin Laden's organization, not its strength. The very uncertainty in establishing whether such a group attempting a "Qaeda-type" operation is actually connected to al-Qaeda's own structures reflects the diffuse nature of the organization: Last year's July 7 London bombings, for example, were carried out by a homegrown cell whose leader had traveled to Pakistan. Authorities initially doubted any direct connection with al-Qaeda, but then, a year later, Qaeda number 2 Ayman Zawahiri released a video to al-Jazeera that included the suicide tape left by one of the London bombers.
Al-Qaeda and its acolytes have certainly managed, over the past five years, to kill hundreds in terror strikes on Bali and Madrid, Istanbul, London and perhaps even New Delhi. But none of those attacks has come close to matching 9/11 in scale of devastation or, just as importantly, in organizational sophistication. And despite regular taped warnings delivered on Al-Jazeera, al-Qaeda has managed no further attack on the U.S. mainland.
Its operational structures have been badly disrupted by the arrest or killing of hundreds of its operatives. Its Afghan sanctuary has long ago been destroyed, and it no longer has a central campus where recruits drawn from all over the world by the allure of global jihad can be trained. Instead, the movement has been forcibly decentralized, subject to ongoing harassment by intelligence and security services in all of its traditional stomping grounds and target zones; the ease with which Mohammed Atta and his consort of hijackers were able to operate in the U.S. prior to 9/11 is a thing of the past. Indeed, immigration restrictions of today may have made it very difficult for many of the hijackers of 2001 to enter the U.S. even if the same restrictions have also kept out thousands of talented immigrants whose absence weakens the U.S. economy. The cadres recruited and trained locally to replace the Afghan-schooled generation may never be of quite the same experience and quality.
Ironically, al-Qaeda finds itself substantially weaker organizationally at the very moment where the political conditions for its existence may never have been better. Muslims around the world are far more enraged by the U.S. today than they had been five years ago, fueled by shooting wars in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Afghanistan. Even if Bin Laden arguably helped provoke the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, he has not managed to capitalize on the resultant outrage. In fact, it is among the active jihadists on some of those battlefronts that his isolation is most palpable.
Even the Qaeda element in the Iraqi insurgency looked for immediate leadership not to Bin Laden and Zawahiri, but to Musab al-Zarqawi, who lived among them and whose relationship with "al-Qaeda central" was always testy. When Zawahiri publicly criticized the Palestinian Islamists of Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood for contesting democratic elections, both organizations sharply rebuked him; they made clear they had no need of advice from the self-styled sheikhs of global jihad broadcasting not-quite-live from among the peasants of Waziristan. And the extent of their isolation was most evident in recent weeks when, as the Arab street rallied to the cause of Hizballah in its battle with Israel, al-Qaeda central appeared caught between Arab public opinion and its own instinct to vilify Hizballah as Shi'ite interlopers.
After a few statements from Qaeda supporters condemning Hizballah, Zawahiri finally urged support for the organization, although it's not clear that anybody cares. For angry young Muslims in search of a warrior icon of jihad, Hizballah's Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah cuts a far more appealing figure as his men trade blows and hold their own with the most reviled enemy of the Islamists than does Bin Laden, whose followers are more likely to target random civilians than "infidel" soldiers.
The conspiracy theories that had such currency in the Arab world after 9/11 blaming Israel for the attacks were, in themselves, instructive: Even many people who agreed with Bin Laden's worldview were clearly so repelled by the mass slaughter of innocents that they were unable to "own" the event, preferring instead to blame it on the Mossad.
Even if the invasion of Iraq "proved" Bin Laden's claim of an innate U.S. hostility to the Muslim world, his remedy a global jihad against the "far enemy" led by himself appears to have diminished appeal. That may be in part because the alternatives are more compelling: The "far" enemy has drawn very near in Iraq, and those pulled to jihad can actually engage its soldiers in battles that necessarily leave Bin Laden and Zawahiri far away from the action.
The airline plot, of course, is a reminder that al-Qaeda is far from dead, even if the perpetrators had no direct organizational connection but were simply following the idea. But it may also be a sign that the events of the past five years have changed the dynamics of the Muslim world in ways that have marginalized it, so much so that Bin Laden now faces more compelling contenders for the mantle of champion of jihadist rage.