Eight years after 9/11, the specter of terrorism still haunts the United States. Just last week, F.B.I. agents were working double time to unravel the alarming case of a Denver airport shuttle driver accused of training with explosives in Pakistan and buying bomb-making chemicals. In Dallas, a young Jordanian was charged with trying to blow up a skyscraper; in Springfield, Ill., a prison parolee was arrested for trying to attack the local federal building. Meanwhile, the Obama administration struggled to decide whether sending many more troops to Afghanistan would be the best way to forestall a future attack.
But important as they were, those news reports masked a surprising and perhaps heartening long-term trend: Many students of terrorism believe that in important ways, Al Qaeda and its ideology of global jihad are in a pronounced decline — with its central leadership thrown off balance as operatives are increasingly picked off by missiles and manhunts and, more important, with its tactics discredited in public opinion across the Muslim world.
“Al Qaeda is losing its moral argument about the killing of innocent civilians,” said Emile A. Nakhleh, who headed the Central Intelligence Agency’s strategic analysis program on political Islam until 2006. “They’re finding it harder to recruit. They’re finding it harder to raise money.”
Marc Sageman, a former C.I.A. officer and forensic psychiatrist, counted 10 serious plots with Western targets, successful and unsuccessful, that could be linked to Al Qaeda or its allies in 2004, a peak he believes was motivated by the American-led invasion of Iraq the year before. In 2008, he said, there were just three. [continued…]