Whoever embarks on a journey to study al-Qaeda and its rise during the 1990s will inevitable come across Gerges' Far Enemy, a brilliant account on al-Qaeda's rise. Bin Laden's death and the following killing of Ilyas Kashmiri really is a major blow to the organisation and leaves it without a major figure to rally around. As the BBC put it, al-Qaeda is now on the run. But what does that mean for al-Qaeda strategically? Today, I've re-read Thomas McCabes 2010 terse Parameters article [pdf] on the strategic failures of the terrorist organisation, and he is quite right in pointing out that al-Qaeda misjudged the United States resolve, underestimated the impact of its indiscriminate killings of fellow Muslims and the lack of an attractive vision. But McCabe raises, involuntarily I shall think, a serious question. What can we learn from the now closing campaign against al-Qaeda for the fight against the next terrorist organisation?
And here is the bottom line: I am not sold on the whole idea that there will be a lot more jihadist groups in the future, which we might have to fight with military means. For one thing I haven't commented on bin Laden's death on this blog not because I wasn't tempted (I was), but because it was so surprisingly irrelevant. After Thomas McCabe comes up with a seriously apt and terse list of al-Qaeda's strategic failures, I find it surprising that he thinks similar movements might have a future. I beg to differ. Take Pakistan for example: How much of the challenge in Pakistan is really constituted by radical jihadist groups or their teachings? Or is the real challenge in Pakistan not the constant double-dealing of the ISI and flawed civil-military relations? The more I have to deal with it, the more it seems that the real security threat is the ISI. And that's exactly the point: The world moves on. Everybody knew bin-Laden's name, but how many could actually name his successor? How many American flags were burned after Navy Seals raided bin-Laden's compound? Terrorist organisations across the world have sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda, but in many cases—take al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), for example—that was a measure designed to regain some lost legitimacy and conceal the basic weakness of the organisation and in al-Shabaabs case it hardly meant anything in the first place. Sure, Islamist terrorism will remain a threat, no doubt about that. But the number of terrorist incidents has dropped sharply, countermeasures are effective and these organisations have lost appeal basically everywhere. Its gradually turning into a threat similar to the threats posed by the Red Army Faction in Germany or the Real IRA in the UK, it now longer threatens the very existence of states, well functioning states.
The Arab Spring clearly demonstrates that the next fight is about something very different and that the near enemy was toppled without reverting to any sort of violence. Communism collapsed, radical Islamist thought is discredited, something else will come up. That's the deeper meaning of the celebrations in New York and Washington following bin-Laden's death. The war is coming to a close.