Is Al Qaeda on the Decline?

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NEW YORK - The image of Najibullah Zazi, a 24-year-old Afghan-born bus driver from Denver and now a terror suspect, embodies the complex truths of where we are right now in the struggle against terrorism.

Zazi, who pleaded not guilty in federal court here Tuesday on charges of conspiring to set off a bomb in the U.S., represents the age-old axiom of counterterrorism that law enforcement officials have to be lucky every time and terrorists only need to be lucky once to carry out a mass killing of innocent civilians.

Thank God the FBI agents who arrested Zazi kept him from being lucky. As a result, the case reveals the level of intense investigative work that is going on every day by federal agents who keep us safe. Very often that work occurs far from view without any of us knowing how close the terror plots came to fruition.

But Zazi, with his long beard and his rag-tag appearance and the surveillance videos of him going around collecting beauty supplies allegedly for the chemicals needed to build small bombs, also embodies the current, desperate reality of Al Qaeda and those inspired by its apocalyptic vision of a holy war with the infidel, America.

Al Qaeda is very much on the run and wounded, albeit not yet dead.

Its decline has come as Muslims around the world and the governments that represent them increasingly see the movement for what it is, a cult of hatred and death that will just as easily target a Muslim as an American.

GlobalPost reported on that groundtruth this summer in our series "Life, Death and the Taliban," when we documented the shift in mood in Pakistan as the country turned against the Pakistani Taliban and supported a government offensive in the Swat Valley. That offensive, which displaced more than 2 million civilians, has nevertheless effectively served to fracture the Taliban in Pakistan and sent affiliated Al Qaeda elements out of their caves and put them on the run.

Consider the Pew Global Attitudes Project which has tracked opinion in the Muslim world from 2002 to 2009. According to Pew, those who believe suicide bombings are "often or sometimes justified" have dramatically declined from alarmingly high percentages in the first years after Sept. 11, 2001. In Pakistan, it has dropped from 33 percent to 5 percent. In Jordan, from 43 percent to 12. And in Indonesia, from 26 percent to 13.

That represents a significant shift in the Muslim world that Americans should acknowledge and capitalize upon by continuing to recognize that ultimately the battle against Al Qaeda is not a conventional war, but one of ideas - a relentless struggle against what is, at the end of the day, a criminal enterprise. Effective surgical strikes and disruptive tactics will be necessary.

The CIA and the U.S. military's Special Operations unit have worked very effectively with allies to kill key terrorist leaders, as was made evident earlier this month with precise and successful strikes on top leadership in Somalia, Yemen and Indonesia.

But when we view the complex struggle against terrorism only as a conventional war, we will lose and they will win.

In his June speech to the Muslim world, President Barack Obama, then a candidate, embraced this more sophisticated sense of counterterrorism. Through public diplomacy, he was accomplishing a great deal to advance the ideas that America stands for among Muslims, and his efforts had some proven success as various opinion surveys have shown in the Muslim world.

But the recent debate over the proposed surge of troops in Afghanistan suggests a strong current within his administration and the Pentagon that wants to regress back to the conventional military approach and what is ultimately a doomed strategy against the Taliban and the Al Qaeda movement for which the now toppled Taliban government provided a base in Afghanistan.

The decline and creeping desperation of Al Qaeda may also be an inevitable historical truth among fundamentalist movements. It is a natural law of extremism that it will always inevitably implode, according to two new books on the subject.

They come from very different quarters. One emerges from the National War College and the other from Harvard University's Divinity School. But they end up in the same place: Al Qaeda is following the trend of all violent, religious extremist movements and in the process of flaming out.

In a recently published book titled "How Terrorism Ends," author Audrey Kurth Cronin, a professor at the War College in Washington, assesses the patterns of the trajectory of violent extremist groups from the Provisional Irish Republican Army to Peru's Shining Path. She recently told the New York Times: "I think Al Qaeda is in the process of imploding. This is not necessarily the end, but the trends are in a good direction."

The respected religious scholar and Harvard University professor emeritus Harvey Cox comes to a similar conclusion in his latest book, "The Future of Faith."

Cox has been on the money in predicting trends in religion throughout a distinguished career that spans a half century, and this book feels as prophetic in its predictions as it is sweeping in its scholarship. To make these conclusions, Cox draws on decades of work on the subject of religious fundamentalisms in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. And it is a book that is ultimately hopeful by asserting that faith will survive where dogma will grow rigid and disappear.

Cox taught a course at Harvard in recent years called "Fundamentalisms," and I had the honor of serving as both a student and an occasional guest lecturer in his class. I would relate to the class street stories about Hamas and Hezbollah and Christian Zionists and the Jewish settler movement from years of reporting in the Middle East. And then Cox would frame those stories in historical and theological context for the class, and me.

So when I recently returned from Afghanistan, Cox and I had lunch and discussed the recent trends and once again he put all the street reporting on the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan in context.

"What you were witnessing, I believe, is a shift, the beginning of a decline," Cox said, referring to the Taliban movement on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and the Al Qaeda elements that metastasized around it.

If the history of fundamentalism he chronicles so well teaches us about the present, Cox believes: "It is a decline that is inevitable."

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