The arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, second within the Afghanistan Taliban only to the group's leader Mullah Omar, near Karachi about ten days ago was the latest sign of growing intelligence cooperation between Pakistan and the United States.
What could this mean for the hunt for Osama bin Laden, who remains America's most wanted man more than eight years after he helped plan the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC, and is often said to be hiding along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border?
The joint Pakistani and CIA operation to arrest Mr. Baradar was announced Monday, and US and Pakistani officials say his interrogation could yield a trove of useful intelligence in dealing with the core of the Taliban. Baradar acted until recently as the Afghanistan Taliban's military chief of staff and was heavily involved in their war planing. He also ran the Quetta Shura – a sort of ad hoc Taliban leadership council – that is based near the town of Quetta on the Pakistan side of the border.
His arrest is a reminder that US and Pakistani intelligence agents are stepping up the pressure on Taliban officials inside Pakistan. President Barack Obama has dramatically escalated the US drone assassination campaign inside Pakistan since taking office and intelligence sharing appears as good as it's been since Afghanistan war began.
The irony of Mr. Baradar's capture is that from an operational standpoint, he is far more important to America's enemies inside Afghanistan than Mr. Bin Laden is today – something that made his capture easier, since Baradar's ongoing involvement in planning operations against US troops left him more exposed to detection. Bin Laden, by contrast, is a powerful symbol for Al Qaeda and its self-styled global jihad, but from an operational standpoint he's a marginal figure inside Afghanistan. And globally, his dream of attracting legions of young Muslim men to his battle flag has fallen flat.
To be sure, Bin Laden popped his head above the parapet twice in January, with audiotapes urging an ongoing war with the United States that emphasized his differences from the Taliban. The Taliban, largely ethnic-Pashtuns from Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan, have broadly national goals. Bin Laden and his smaller band of international jihadis – mostly Arabs, but with some Afghans and even a few Europeans and Americans among them – made clear he continues to view his struggle as a global one.
The audiotapes, as they typically do, sent a jolt of electricity through online chat rooms where fans of his global jihad and self-styled "holy warriors" gather.
A weaker echo
Bin Laden, who heads a small group of international Sunni militants dedicated to the destruction of the US, had demonstrated once again that he was alive in defiance of a multibillion-dollar effort to capture or kill him.
But the echo of his latest remarks was hardly heard beyond his small circle of supporters. In both tapes he made populist appeals in what analysts said was a clear attempt to broaden Al Qaeda's appeal beyond its base to the broader Arab and Muslim world.
In the first tape, released Jan. 24, he praised failed Nigerian underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and sought to link Al Qaeda's goals in attacking the US to a desire to free Palestine. That's boilerplate for bin Laden. But the Jan. 28 tape took a more novel approach – fingering the US as the principal culprit in global warming and calling for a boycott of US commerce to bring its economy to its knees and thereby save the planet.
These populist appeals – on Palestine and the issue of global warming – have long been features of Al Qaeda rhetoric. The problem for bin Laden is that fewer and fewer in his audience appear to be listening to, never mind heeding, his call.
"After 9/11, a new bin Laden tape had the impact of an atomic bomb in the media," says Evan Kohlmann, an independent consultant on Islamist militant groups who has closely tracked Al Qaeda's propaganda messages and organizational tactics since shortly before the 2001 attacks. "But now, the fact [that Al Qaeda] has released so many recordings since then means their impact has been diluted. The supporters are still thrilled when they hear his voice, but it does not have the same punch beyond that."
There have been about 60 audio or videotapes by bin Laden or close aides like Ayman al-Zawahiri since 9/11. Bin Laden himself released six tapes last year.
Muhammad Ahmed, a Cairo taxi driver, is a member of their target audience. But as he sipped tea with a reporter in early February, he confessed that he hadn't heard anything about a recent bin Laden tape. Mr. Ahmed echoed many Egyptians when he said he considered bin Laden an extremist and a terrorist. "With regard to Al Qaeda, bin Laden is very important. But with regard to everyone else, he's not," Ahmed said.
Bin Laden and Al Qaeda had hoped the spectacular success of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington would jump-start mass recruitment of Muslims to their cause, generating millions of new followers willing to participate in terrorist attacks on the US and to seek the overthrow of regimes in Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt that Al Qaeda views as ungodly and corrupt.
That was always something of a pipe dream. But in recent years, polling across the Arab and Muslim world has shown that populations have moved further away from Al Qaeda and its goals, even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fed a broader Muslim anger at the US.
Where does this leave bin Laden?
He remains a potent symbol of defiance for Al Qaeda's fellow travelers and like-minded groups that have metastasized in recent years: the Algeria-based Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Saudi- and Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Shabab in Somalia, and Al Qaeda in Iraq.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, he still commands and inspires many, and can focus anger to murderous intent.
But bin Laden is arguably irrelevant when it comes to his ability to inspire the overthrow of a government like Saudi Arabia's, let alone America's. The deep concerns, nine years ago, that the propaganda of his deeds was going to raise legions in support for a global Islamic emirate have since been laid to rest.
"What everyone is really focused on right now is AQAP [in Yemen and Saudi Arabia], and some people say it shows Al Qaeda is really dangerous and the people who said they were 'irrelevant' are wrong," says Marc Lynch, a political science professor at George Washington University who studies the Arab world. "But that's a misunderstanding. What I've been saying is that Al Qaeda, as a political force in the mainstream Arab world, is way down. They're seen as marginal, irrelevant, not attractive anymore."
To be sure, Mr. Lynch says that bin Laden remains a key inspirational figure, and his death or capture would yield dividends for the security of the US.
"When we say they're 'marginal,' what we mean is that Al Qaeda has lost the ability to reach out to the public," Lynch says. But "bin Laden personally retains an almost mythical status: You see a huge disconnect in the polling numbers. Al Qaeda support is 20 percent in certain countries, but 50 percent for bin Laden. I see that as a response to him as a personality. So if he were to fade from the scene I think that would be irreplaceable for Al Qaeda."
Mohamed El Sayed, an unemployed graduate of Cairo University's business school, typifies those conflicting views. While he says he does not support terrorism, Mr. Sayed's feelings toward bin Laden are warm. "He's a good man. Everything he does is good, except terrorism. Osama bin Laden wasn't a terrorist until America interfered with the Muslim world," he said. "Who made Osama bin Laden? America made him who he is today."
Mr. Kohlmann, the independent consultant, says that bin Laden retains his importance. He says bin Laden's latest remarks have generally been praised in the online jihadi chat rooms, though he points out that Al Qaeda hasn't released full versions of the tapes yet, something it generally does after releasing teasers to TV stations like Al Jazeera, which broadcast bin Laden's latest remarks.
But Kohlmann is also concerned that the ongoing possibility of terrorist attacks is undiminished. He doesn't expect them to decline substantially even if bin Laden is neutralized.
"How do you evolve a perfect terrorist group? Competition. Lots of people trying lots of different strategies. And that's what's been happening since 9/11," Kohlmann says. "The vibrant activity in Al Qaeda is now going on in affiliates, the franchise groups. Al Qaeda central, there's lots of activity going on there, but we've taken down a lot of those people and a lot of them are focused on survival. The other groups – AQAP, Shabab, AQIM, have sanctuaries from which to operate."