Al Qaeda Is Going Gently into the Night

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Counter-terrorism experts said Al Qaeda wouldn't vanish in a sweeping final act but in a gradual, winnowing decline. A new report out of Southeast Asia gives a sketch of what that looks like. 

Reporting from Jakarta, the Associated Press writes that Al Qaeda's foothold in Southeast Asia appears to be gone. The evidence stems from an interrogation video of Umar Patek, a top Indonesian terrorist suspect affiliated with Jemaah Islamijayh who was captured in Abbottabad, Pakistan, shortly after Osama bin Laden was killed there. Initially, Patek's arrest in bin Laden's sanctuary city signaled that Al Qaeda's ties to Asia remain strong. But interrogators soon concluded that Patek had gone to Abbottabad to rekindle his relationship with the terror network, waiting for months until a years-old contact eventually reached out to him.  

"Relying on such an old contact suggests Patek had been unable to forge any new jihadist ties in recent years," writes the AP's Niniek Karmini. "It was a far cry from the early 2000s, when Jemaah Islamiyah was believed to have received funding and operational support from al-Qaida, and some JI leaders were believed to have close relations with al-Qaida leaders from their days in militant training camps in Afghanistan."

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In some important ways, the development follows the script of a 2008 RAND Corporation study titled "How Terrorist Groups End." The project analyzed the spectrum of terrorist groups from 1968 to 2006, tracking their rise and fall. It found a group's downfall was typically gradual and led by police and intelligence work. "The evidence since 1968 indicates that terrorist groups rarely cease to exist as a result of winning or losing a military campaign. Rather, most groups end because of operations carried out by local police or intelligence agencies or because they join the political process."

The emphasis on local police efforts as opposed to sweeping military campaigns is precisely what experts, speaking with the AP, attribute to the decline of Al Qaeda-linked military groups in Southeast Asia. "They can't stand their ground," said Sidney Jones, a terrorism analyst at the International Crisis Group. "The Indonesian police in particular is managing the threat very well."

That should please the Rand researchers who urged the U.S. to step up "cooperation with foreign police and intelligence agencies" when the study was written. 

On the intelligence front, the CIA drone campaign as applied to Al Qaeda, has had a profound effect on the group's ability to carry out attacks, alongside efforts to cut off the group's funding. Much of these details came out in August, following the government's assessment of Al Qaeda in the aftermath of bin Laden's death and the killing of Abu Abd al-Rahman Atiyyat Allah, a senior Al Qaeda leader. John Mueller wrote about the government's findings in Foreign Affairs. "A multi-agency task force has completed its assessment, and according to first reports, it has found that al Qaeda members have primarily been engaged in dodging drone strikes and complaining about how cash-strapped they are," he wrote. "Some reports suggest they've also been looking at quite a bit of pornography."

Another major factor to the decline of Al Qaeda is internal divisions. As Juan Zarate, a counter-terrorism expert in the Bush administration wrote for The New York Times, bin Laden's death unleashed "internal divisions and fractures within the movement." Reason being, bin Lade was "the symbolic, ideological and strategic core of the Qaeda movement. His ideological innovations reshaped the global terrorist threat in the 1990s -- focusing terrorist attacks on the 'far enemy' (the United States) and establishing the concept of the obligatory defensive jihad to defend Muslims against the West’s purported war against Islam." Put together, you have a cocktail of forces working against the terror network's long-term livelihood. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.