Is al-Qaeda near defeat? 

Don't Panic ... your war questions answered

If al-Qaeda is near defeat, no one has yet informed its A/V department.

In the past year, Osama bin Laden and his loyal cavemate Ayman al-Zawahiri (the Smithers of jihadi terrorism) have swamped my al-Netfliqs queue with at least 19 audio and video missives between them.

Bin Laden's most recent rant was released last month to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Israel's statehood. He called on Muslims to fight the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and promised that an unspecified "we" would not give up "a single inch of Palestine as long as there is one true Muslim on Earth."

An Italian news agency reported bin Laden actually said "centimeter of Palestine" instead of "inch" which makes more sense if you think about it. In my opinion, the only thing more anti-freedom than bin Laden is the metric system.

Zawahiri has recently taken to answering questions submitted to al-Qaeda via Islamist websites. In his most widely reported cyberchat, Zawahiri sparked an outcry among feminist would-be suicide bombers by declaring that blowing yourself up for the cause is a man's thing. "I appreciate your spunk, ladies, but the group is called al-Qaeda, not gal-Qaeda." Maybe those weren't his exact words.

Not as widely (mis)quoted, but just as important, were some of the other Q&A exchanges from his chat sessions. If the tone of the questions is indicative, Islamists are increasingly furious at al-Qaeda for its attacks against civilian targets, especially Muslim civilian targets.

In a cyber-exchange quoted both in the June 2 issue of the New Yorker and the June 11 issue of the New Republic, Zawahiri was sarcastically asked, "Excuse me, Mr. Zawahiri, but who is it who is killing, with Your Excellency's permission, the innocents in Baghdad, Morocco, and Algeria? Do you consider the killing of women and children to be jihad?"

Despite, how shall I put this, ample evidence to the contrary, Zawahiri denied al-Qaeda targets innocent civilians. "In fact, we fight those who kill innocents," he replied. "Those who kill innocents are the Americans, the Jews, the Russians, and the French and their agents."

The testy exchange highlights what many say is a growing rift between al-Qaeda and its supposed base – angry Islamists (as opposed to everyday Muslims) who want to fight Israel, the West and the dictatorial pro-Western regimes that dominate Arab, Muslim countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, etc.

The New Yorker story mentioned above cites several examples of former al-Qaedudes and sympathizers who've tried to distance themselves from violent acts in general and al-Qaeda in particular. Al-Qaeda's grip on the imagination of many would-be violent jihadis may be slipping.

If the previous sentence makes you smile, then the next sentence might make you pee your pants with glee. Last month CIA director Michael Hayden said in the Washington Post that al-Qaeda in both Iraq and Saudi Arabia are "near strategic defeat" and on the defensive elsewhere in the world – including in the mountainous region straddling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Near strategic defeat? Wa-wa-wee-wa! That's great news, right? Yes, it's great news, but it should be taken with a grain of kosher salt.

Hayden's assessment is just a happy snapshot in time. Just as easily as Iraq's post-invasion chaos gave al-Qaeda an opening in 2003, a collapse of the current U.S.-brokered semi-truce in Iraq right now (a truce between Sunni and Shi'ite Iraqis that has made it difficult for al-Qaeda in Iraq to function) could provide the terrorists with another opening.

Over in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the United States has had decent success killing al-Qaeda leaders this year, but there's no indication al-Qaeda's ability to operate there has been restricted. In fact, the pace of al-Qaeda and Taliban operations in Afghanistan has picked up every year since 2002.

The biggest thing to consider before celebrating the demise of al-Qaeda is its significance to violent jihadi terrorism in general. If al-Qaeda withers into an impotent, two-man podcast, the world won't necessarily be safer. Since 9/11, the number of jihadi terrorist groups has, pardon the expression, exploded. So, too, have the number of deadly attacks. Al-Qaeda may be dying, but what it started may continue without it.

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