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Al Qaeda's Challenge
The Jihadists' War With Islamist Democrats
WILLIAM MCCANTS is an analyst at CNA’s Center for Strategic Studies and an adjunct faculty member at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of the forthcoming book Founding Gods, Inventing Nations: Conquest and Culture Myths From Antiquity to Islam.See more by this author
A May 1st update to the print story from the September/October 2011 issue: Al Qaeda leaders often compare the outcome of their jihad to that of a harvest. One year after the death of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda’s crop seems mixed. The organization’s central leadership, operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has nearly collapsed, but its offshoots are mounting full-blown insurgencies in Somalia and Yemen. The group’s operatives have failed to carry out major strikes on U.S. or European soil, but its online supporters still excite fear among Western governments and media. And al Qaeda’s argument against democracy has lost out in Arab nations where long-ruling autocrats have fallen, but its gospel of violence continues to resonate in those countries where dictators refuse to abdicate. Yet although some al Qaeda plots have continued to succeed, the organization has hardly experienced the bounty that it long expected.
Following the assassination of bin Laden and several of his most capable operatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, al Qaeda has largely shifted its attention away from Central and South Asia to Somalia and Yemen. In Somalia, the militant group al Shabab, engaged in a long struggle to conquer the country, formally joined al Qaeda in February to staunch recent losses at the hands of intervening armies. Although it remains unclear whether the entire organization endorsed the merger, al Qaeda can now likely count large parts of Somalia as its own. Meanwhile, in Yemen, the front group of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Ansar al-Sharia, has exploited the country’s political turmoil to capture territory in the south. The organization quickly began providing basic services to the inhabitants of captured areas, documenting its efforts as part of a savvy public relations campaign.