Magazine article Foreign Policy

The Almanac of Al Qaeda

Magazine article Foreign Policy

The Almanac of Al Qaeda

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In December 2007, al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, made a little-noticed nod to the fact that his organization's popularity was taking a nosedive: He solicited questions from jihadi forum participants in an online question-and-answer session. It looked like a rather desperate gambit to win back al Qaeda's dwindling support. And it was. Since the September 11 attacks, the terrorist organization and its affiliates had killed thousands of Muslims--countless in Iraq, and hundreds more in Afghanistan and Pakistan that year alone. For a group claiming to defend the Islamic ummah, these massacres had dealt a devastating blow to its credibility. The faithful, Zawahiri knew, were losing faith in al Qaeda.

Zawahiri's Web session did not go well. Asked how he could justify killing Muslim civilians, he answered defensively in dense, arcane passages that referred readers to other dense, arcane statements he had already made about the matter. A typical question came from geography teacher Mudarris Jughrafiya, who asked: "Excuse me, Mr. Zawahiri, but who is it who is killing with your excellency's blessing the innocents in Baghdad, Morocco, and Algeria? Do you consider the killing of women and children to be jihad?"

Like a snake backed into a corner, however, a weakened al Qaeda isn't necessarily less dangerous. In the first comprehensive look of its kind, FOREIGN POLICY offers the Almanac of Al Qaeda, a detailed accounting of how al Qaeda's ranks, methods, and strategy have changed over the last decade and how they might evolve from here. What emerges is a picture of a terrorist vanguard that is losing the war of ideas in the Islamic world, even as its violent attacks have grown in frequency.

It's not because the United States is winning-most Muslims still have extremely negative attitudes toward the United States because of its wars in the Muslim world and history of abuses of detainees, it's because Muslims have largely turned against Osama bin Laden's dark ideology. …

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