Al-Qaida's history: Why has it always been so resilient?

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Sept. 1 2011 7:14 AM

The History of Al-Qaida

A look at what al-Qaida has been up to since 9/11.

Also in Slate: Daniel Byman reviews al-Qaida's prospects for the next 10 yearsRead more from Slate's Sept. 11 anniversary coverage.

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Still, al-Qaida's narrative, unable to spin its brutality in Iraq into heroism, found itself newly challenged by the Arab Spring that began earlier this year. For the many Arabs fed up with their corrupt, incompetent, and dictatorial governments there was a new model for action—marching peacefully to topple the regime—that did not involve violence or attacks on the United States. Indeed Washington, so long the supporter of dictators in the region, helped ease Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak out of power and topple Moammar Qaddafi in Libya, even though both these governments had cooperated with U.S. intelligence agencies against al-Qaida and its allies.

Even as the Arab Spring erupted, al-Qaida suffered a devastating blow with the death of Bin Laden at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs. The elusive Bin Laden, whose very survival seemed miraculous to his followers, was now dead, replaced by the lackluster and divisive Ayman Zawahiri. Bin Laden's death was al-Qaida's most dramatic and important loss, but the organization has suffered steady losses from U.S. drone strikes in the last few years. The Long War Journalreports the United States has killed hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaida figures, along with dozens of civilians. These strikes not only killed difficult-to-replace leaders, but they also forced existing recruiters, trainers, and commanders to keep their heads low, making them far less effective. Some U.S. officials even believe the organization is at the point of collapse.

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If so, al-Qaida would still be able to count several lasting accomplishments since 9/11. Its once-controversial tactics now seem a regular, if horrible, part of modern life; it is hard to remember that 20 years ago suicide bombing was unknown among Sunni Muslim groups, and these Sunni groups focused on fighting local regimes, not the United States. Now al-Qaida's ideology can be found in Indonesia, Nigeria, and Central Asia, as well as its traditional home in South Asia and the Arab world.

Indeed, al-Qaida can claim it forced the United States to reveal its true colors. The U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the growing U.S. military role in Yemen and Somalia, all demonstrates, for those who are already eager to believe, that the United States is bent on dominating the Muslim world. A decade of public diplomacy has not dented this view, and polls of Muslim populaces indicate that they continue to have a poor opinion of the United States.

And while the al-Qaida core may be hard-pressed, its affiliate organizations remain strong. In Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and the Maghreb, strong affiliate organizations are in rebellion against their governments. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, like-minded groups are also up in arms. There are even some indications that an al-Qaida-inspired group was behind last month's killing of eight Israelis. These organizations vary in how much control the al-Qaida core in Pakistan exerts over them, and how much their focus is global rather than local. But they share at least some of al-Qaida's ideology and goals.

So while U.S. officials could and should enjoy the victory lap they are taking since the killing of Bin Laden, it's worth reflecting on the many advances al-Qaida has made since 9/11, and on its impressive resilience.

Daniel Byman is a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the research director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.