By Bergen, Peter
Newsweek , Vol. 156, No. 11
Byline: Peter Bergen
Al Qaeda never had more than a few hundred sworn members. The real danger was its ability to train and inspire jihadis around the world.
In late January, Osama bin Laden released an audiotape praising the Nigerian who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009. "The message delivered to you through the plane of the heroic warrior Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a confirmation of the previous messages sent by the heroes of [September] 11th," he said.
While the tape was proof that Al Qaeda's leader was still alive, it also raised the question of whether he's now only an irrelevant militant seeking to associate himself with even failed attacks originated by groups he doesn't control. After all, the organization behind the botched bombing was Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, headquartered in Yemen, thousands of miles from bin Laden's presumed base on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Bin Laden's irrelevance seemed further confirmed in June, when CIA Director Leon Panetta told ABC News that Al Qaeda's presence in Afghanistan is now "relatively small--I think at most we're looking at maybe 50 to 100."
For some, these small numbers suggest that bin Laden's organization is fading away, and that the war against it is largely won. But the fact is that Al Qaeda has always been a small organization. According to the FBI, there were only 200 sworn members at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and the group has always seen itself primarily as an ideological and military vanguard seeking to influence and train other jihadist groups.
Al Qaeda's ideology and tactics have spread to a range of militant groups in South Asia, some of which are relatively large; the Afghan Taliban alone are estimated to number at least 25,000 men. As Al Qaeda's ideas proliferated, leaders began planning seriously to attack targets in the West. According to Spanish prosecutors, the late leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, sent a team of would-be suicide bombers to attack Barcelona's public-transport system in January 2008. Luckily, the alleged plotters were arrested before the plan was carried out.
A year later Mehsud threatened America itself, saying, "Soon we will launch an attack in Washington that will amaze everyone in the world." At the time, this was largely discounted as bloviating, but the Pakisani Taliban then started training an American recruit, Faisal Shahzad, for just such an attack. In the winter of 2009-10 Shahzad traveled to Pakistan, where he received bomb-making training. After returning to Connecticut he built a bomb, which he then placed in an SUV and detonated in Times Square on May 1. The bomb was a dud, and Shahzad was arrested two days later as he tried to leave JFK airport for Dubai.
In recent years Al Qaeda Central has also seeded a number of franchises around the Middle East and North Africa that are now acting in a Qaeda-like manner, despite having little or no contact with bin Laden. In September 2009 the Somali Islamist insurgent group Al-Shabab ("the youth") pledged its allegiance to Al Qaeda's leader. Today Al-Shabab controls a swath of central Somalia. Worryingly, the group has also shown that it is capable of carrying out operations outside Somalia, bombing two groups of fans watching the World Cup in Uganda on July 11, 2010, attacks that killed more than 70.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has shown an even longer reach. It was the group responsible for Abdulmutallab's botched attempt to explode a bomb hidden in his underwear on Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit. …