The terrorist organization has traditionally maintained that change in the Middle East could only be effected through force and violence. But peaceful change in the region is challenging al Qaeda’s very raison d’être:
For nearly two decades, the leaders of Al Qaeda have denounced the Arab world’s dictators as heretics and puppets of the West and called for their downfall. Now, people in country after country have risen to topple their leaders — and Al Qaeda has played absolutely no role.
In fact, the motley opposition movements that have appeared so suddenly and proved so powerful have shunned the two central tenets of the Qaeda credo: murderous violence and religious fanaticism. The demonstrators have used force defensively, treated Islam as an afterthought and embraced democracy, which is anathema to Osama bin Laden and his followers.
So for Al Qaeda — and perhaps no less for the American policies that have been built around the threat it poses — the democratic revolutions that have gripped the world’s attention present a crossroads. Will the terrorist network shrivel slowly to irrelevance? Or will it find a way to exploit the chaos produced by political upheaval and the disappointment that will inevitably follow hopes now raised so high?
For many specialists on terrorism and the Middle East, though not all, the past few weeks have the makings of an epochal disaster for Al Qaeda, making the jihadists look like ineffectual bystanders to history while offering young Muslims an appealing alternative to terrorism.
“So far — and I emphasize so far — the score card looks pretty terrible for Al Qaeda,” said Paul R. Pillar, who studied terrorism and the Middle East for nearly three decades at the C.I.A. and is now at Georgetown University. “Democracy is bad news for terrorists. The more peaceful channels people have to express grievances and pursue their goals, the less likely they are to turn to violence.”
As the story indicates, al Qaeda may yet find a way to turn any instability to its advantage. But there is no denying the fact that protests in the Middle East have succeeded in achieving within a matter of weeks what al Qaeda and its members have sought for decades:
If the terrorists network’s leaders hope to seize the moment, they have been slow off the mark. Mr. bin Laden has been silent. His Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, has issued three rambling statements from his presumed hide-out in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region that seemed oddly out of sync with the news, not noting the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, whose government detained and tortured Mr. Zawahri in the 1980s.
“Knocking off Mubarak has been Zawahri’s goal for more than 20 years, and he was unable to achieve it,” said Brian Fishman, a terrorism expert at the New America Foundation. “Now a nonviolent, nonreligious, pro-democracy movement got rid of him in a matter of weeks. It’s a major problem for Al Qaeda.”
Indeed. I can imagine few things that would make the organization look as bad, and as useless as it looks now.