Nearly 11 years ago, Osama bin Laden was on a high. His tight-knit band of terrorists wreaked havoc on the United States, taking down the twin icons of America's financial might in New York, striking at the main symbol of America's military power in Washington, and killing more than 3,000 people on American soil in the process.
In the years after Al Qaeda's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Saudi Arabian jihadi could hardly believe his luck. His video messages of threats and bluster were broadcast around the world, and the US was soon drawn into a ruinous war in Iraq.
The conflict proved a recruiting magnet for his ideology, bringing hundreds of fighters from across the Arab world to a country in turmoil on the doorstep of his ultimate objective: Saudi Arabia, and its monarchy that he had come to despise.
He made gleeful predictions that the US "empire" would collapse, just as the Soviet Union had (jihadis like bin Laden liked to tell themselves that the war they helped wage against the Soviets in Afghanistan, not a bankrupt political system, is what caused the superpower to unravel) and that it was only a matter of time before the House of Saud would fall too, heralding the rise of the caliphate of his dreams.
Approval slips from 60-70 percent to 20-30 percent
But then it all went wrong, and badly. The unprecedented international security cooperation spawned by Al Qaeda attacks in the early and mid-2000s had led to the arrest and killing of lieutenant after lieutenant.
Bin Laden's acolytes in Iraq, with an almost nihilistic string of attacks on schools, on ambulances, and on Iraqis sleeping in their beds whose only crime was not sharing Al Qaeda's extreme vision for the world's future caused most of the Muslim world to recoil in horror. His redoubt in Afghanistan was lost, hundreds of his supporters were killed in airstrikes, and he was pushed into living in Pakistan, with the acquiescence of elements of that country's security services.
In the corners of the Muslim world where Al Qaeda had wrested control – parts of Iraq's Anbar province during the height of the war there, or in Afghanistan, or in spots in Yemen – they alienated local residents with arrogance and aggressive attempts to suppress the local tribal cultures.
And while the Arab uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere have threatened a regional order that bin Laden despised, the vast majority of regional citizens have rallied for a democratic voice, not for a medieval caliphate. Islamists will certainly be empowered by real democratic change in the region, but they will be those of the Muslim Brotherhood's brand, a group he despised.
It has now been almost six years since a major attack has been successfully carried out by his organization outside Iraq or Afghanistan (the November 2005 attacks on hotels in Amman, Jordan, that murdered about 60 people). And while there are fellow travelers under the Al Qaeda brand name in places like Yemen, their ability to operate outside their areas remains as yet unproven. Bin Laden's optimism that the Muslim world would flock to his banner was proven foolish.
Polling tells the tale of his failure. Before the Al Qaeda attacks in Amman in 2005, 61 percent of Jordan's citizens told Pew pollsters that bin Laden was a positive force in world affairs. The following year, after the murders in their capital, that number dropped to 24 percent. By 2011, that number had declined further to 13 percent.
It's a similar story elsewhere. In Indonesia in 2003, 59 percent had confidence in him. By last year, that number was 26 percent. In the Palestinian territories, his approval dropped from 72 percent in 2003 to 34 percent last year. And in Pakistan, he fell from 46 percent to 21 percent.
'He confessed to "disaster after disaster" '
In short, while the murderous ideology of Al Qaeda lives on, organizationally it is in tatters. And it already was by the time bin Laden was finally killed. What his successor, the dour Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, will be able to do about it is unclear. Mr. Zawahiri lacks the charisma or stature of his former boss.
John Brennan, President Obama's counterterrorism adviser, said yesterday that Al Qaeda was already teetering by the time its inspirational figurehead was tracked to his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Mr. Brennan said documents recovered from that compound during the US raid indicated that bin Laden was well aware how much trouble his group was in.
"He confessed to 'disaster after disaster'" in his writings, Brennan said in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "Under intense pressure in the tribal regions of Pakistan, they have fewer places to train and groom the next generation of operatives, they're struggling to attract new recruits... morale is low." Brennan said bin Laden had considered a name change for the group in desperation. "For the first time since this fight began, we can look ahead and envision a world in which the Al Qaeda core is simply no longer relevant," he concluded.
To be sure, Brennan works for Obama, who is headed into a tough reelection fight. And officials overstating the security successes of sitting administrations is a time honored tradition in American politics. But it's hard to look at the work against Al Qaeda over the past decade under two administrations, one Republican and the other Democrat, and not see major successes.
The Al Qaeda of Sept. 11 has failed
Will jihadis inspired by Al Qaeda's ideology successfully strike out at the US or other international targets again? Probably.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group's offshoot in Yemen, has some potency. The war in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad appears to have attracted Al Qaeda-style jihadis, judging by reports of suicide bombings there, and when that conflict ends they may fan out. And in Mali, an Al Qaeda-style group appears to have taken some territory thanks to the recent coup and chaos there.
But Al Qaeda as it was understood after Sept. 11 has failed. The groups followers only have a strong presence in exceedingly weak states like Yemen, or Somalia, and are further away from their quixotic dream of conquering the world in the name of a regressive version of Islam than they were 10 years ago.