Al Qaeda reveals signs of weakness

The US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, said Thursday that Al Qaeda is 'simply gone' from some areas.

On Tuesday in Iraq's Anbar Province, where jihadi fighters once enjoyed sanctuary, Sunni Arabs turned out en masse to commemorate Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, a leader suspected of having been killed for helping the US rout Al Qaeda from the province. He was hailed as a "martyr."

In Lebanon last month, the efforts of Al Qaeda-inspired guerrillas to take over a Palestinian refugee camp were crushed. And in his latest audiotape, Osama bin Laden adopted a rare contrite tone, admitting "mistakes" by some Al Qaeda militants in Iraq.

Across the Arab world, where Al Qaeda had sought to build influence and bases of operation on the back of widespread anger against the US over its war in Iraq and the broader war on terrorism, the movement is now showing signs that it is stalled, if not in retreat.

Experts say Al Qaeda's failures have largely come down to its brutal methods, which have turned off large numbers of Arabs. They say that Muslims from Iraq to Egypt may want their countries to adhere to strict Islamic law, but not at the price of suicide bombings.

This is not to say that the group is vanishing or unable to carry out attacks.

But even the US, which not long ago was warning that a withdrawal from Iraq could leave Al Qaeda with control of the Sunni-dominated Anbar Province from which to threaten US and regional interests, is now declaring the local movement a spent force.

"In Fallujah, Ramadi, and other parts of Anbar ... Al Qaeda simply is gone," the American ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, told reporters in Baghdad on Thursday. In Baghdad, he said Al Qaeda is on the ropes "but still present … Sunni militias are increasingly going out of the militia business and coming over to say we want to hook up with the coalition and indeed with the government of Iraq."

The Brookings Institution's Iraq index, which monitors security indicators in the country, appears to back up Mr. Crocker's assessment. In its latest report, the index found that the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq has dropped from about 85 to about 50 over several recent months. US officials say the number of suicide bombings in Iraq has fallen from more than 60 in January to about 30 a month since July.

"I think the generic radical ideas are still chugging along, but the organization is having a hard time finding safe harbor anywhere," says Marc Lynch, a political scientist at George Washington University who focuses on Arab countries. "They pop up with these little groups here and there, they cause trouble, there's a showdown, and then they lose."

To be sure, however, a threat of serious attacks still exists.

"Iraq was Al Qaeda's greatest achievement and its greatest failure," says Evan Kohlmann, an author and consultant on jihadi movements who closely tracks Al Qaeda and aligned propaganda that is spread on the Internet. "At one time they were riding high from what was happening in Iraq, people were talking about [similar] movements popping up in Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and that time has come and gone.

"Al Qaeda has gone, in the minds of many Muslims, from being this kind of chivalrous organization run by Muslim knights seeking to defend the purity of the Muslim world and, instead, they've been revealed for what they are. They've done it to themselves."

But according to a recent US National Intelligence Estimate, Al Qaeda and its allies appear as strong as ever in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the two countries that have served as the movement's core training and planning sites from virtually the day it was founded. Major plots could emanate from the area where the 9/11 attacks were mapped out. In Iraq, despite the group's weakened profile, suicide bombers will almost certainly continue to strike.

No analyst, academic, or intelligence officer goes so far as to predict that the organization won't carry out mass casualty attacks again in Europe, the US, or the Arab countries whose regimes it has long sought to topple.

Given the relatively cheap financial cost of a terrorist attack and the small number of operatives required, a successful strike – someday, somewhere – is a certainty.

Bruce Reidel, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst now at the Brookings Institution in Washington, points out in a recent article in Foreign Affairs that Al Qaeda has successfully reversed its early losses from the invasion of Afghanistan and now has a strong base of operations in Pakistan.

He argues that with those advances, a strong propaganda operation, and continuing support in what he calls a "global jihadi subculture," the group is well placed to "threaten global security in the near future," but also says the group has suffered major reverses in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. Any concern they could overthrow an Arab regime is misplaced, he writes. "Al Qaeda is still too weak to overthrow established governments equipped with effective security services; it needs failed states to thrive."

What looked a few years ago to be a fertile moment for Al Qaeda, moving from the initial defeat in Afghanistan to success via the Iraq insurgency and savvy use of the Internet and satellite television stations to create a base of operations in the heart of the Arab and Islamic world, has dried up.

Iraq's Sunni Arab community has largely rejected Al Qaeda's vision of creating an Islamic state in its image in that country. There is still a vast, Sunni Arab insurgency there, but it is largely focused on using violence to improve the domestic political position of its supporters.

But, analysts say, what were the heady days of 2004-05 for Mr. bin Laden, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was carrying out attacks in Iraq at will, may be long past.

• Sam Dagher contributed reporting from Baghdad.

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