What do al-Qaida's leaders fear most? It's not the more stringent screening requirements imposed by the Transportation Security Administration in the wake of the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing by Nigerian extremist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Nor is it the long-awaited deployment of additional troops to Afghanistan as part of the Obama administration's AfPak plan. And it certainly isn't the prospect that al-Qaida foot soldiers might end up in U.S. federal court, whether in New York or anywhere else. Rather, what keeps Osama Bin Laden and his followers up at night is the prospect that the Muslim world might get wise to their dirty little secret: that supporting al-Qaida is hazardous to your health.
This is borne out by the results of a new study conducted by West Point's Combating Terrorism Center. The December 2009 report, entitled Deadly Vanguards, reveals that, for all of Bin Laden's claims of a clash of civilizations with the West, Muslims have actually been the main casualty of his jihad. "Since the inception of al-Qa'ida, the organization has claimed to represent Muslim interests around the world declaring itself the vanguard of true Islam and the defender of Muslim people," the study says. Yet "the vast majority of al-Qa'ida's victims are Muslims: the analysis here shows that only 15% of the fatalities resulting from al-Qa'ida attacks between 2004 and 2008 were Westerners."
These findings are striking, and go a long way toward explaining the precipitous decline in al-Qaida's popularity throughout the Muslim world over the past half-decade. Between 2003 and 2007, backing for Bin Laden fell from 56% to 20% in Jordan, from 20% to just 1% in Lebanon, and from 59% to 41% in Indonesia, according to the Pew Center. Similar trends can been seen in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Bin Laden's exclusionary brand of radical Islam, with nearly two-thirds of respondents holding negative views of al-Qaida when surveyed in early 2008 by the polling group Terror Free Tomorrow. More recently, a mid-2009 Pew poll of Pakistani public opinion found 61% of those polled there see the Bin Laden network unfavorably.
Indeed, the more intimate a Muslim nation is with Bin Ladenism, the more inoculated against its tenets it becomes. Thus in Iraq, the Bush administration's much ballyhooed "surge" of troops in 2007-2008 helped seize the initiative from al-Qaida and the Ba'athist insurgency. But it would not have been possible without a concurrent grassroots "awakening" of Sunni tribes, who experienced al-Qaida's brutality firsthand and revolted against it. Similarly, al-Qaida may still hold currency in certain extremist circles in Saudi Arabia; officially, however, it is the House of Saud's top terrorist target and the subject of widespread popular revulsion. Then there is Pakistan, where popular animosity toward al-Qaida has jumped by nearly a third in the past year alone, and where nearly 80% of the population is now concerned about the destabilizing effects of Islamist extremism.
Islamic thinkers are progressively drifting away from al-Qaida's uncompromising worldview as well. Take Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, a key figure in the original al-Qaida and one-time mentor to its No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Sharif, better known as "Dr. Fadl," appears to have had a change of heart while in Egyptian prison, penning a book in which he rejects "aggression" and violence against the enemies of Islam. Saudi scholar Salman al-Oudah, one of Osama Bin Laden's key intellectual influences, has had a similar evolution: In September 2007, he took the unprecedented step of publicly chastising the al-Qaida leader about his violent excesses. Even India's influential Deobandi movement, arguably South Asia's most important font of radical Islamic thought, seems to have made a similar about-face, issuing a fatwa in May 2008 condemning terrorism and promoting sectarian reconciliation.
This certainly doesn't mean that al-Qaida is down for the count. The quickening staccato of attempted terrorist attacks against the United States over the past half-year should serve as a sobering reminder that the terrorist group, while struggling intellectually, still poses a serious danger operationally. The crisis of confidence the Bin Laden network is now experiencing, however, speaks volumes about the way in which the West can seriously confront it.
More than half a year ago, in his June 4 speech in Cairo, President Obama outlined his desire for a "new beginning" between America and the Muslim world. Highlighting the high costs of al-Qaida's murderous ideology, and hammering home the reasons why rejection of Bin Ladenism should be a matter of self-interest for Muslims, seems like a very good starting point in that endeavor.