Did Al-Qaeda ever matter as much as we think it did?

Did Al-Qaeda ever matter as much as we think it did?

Marc Lynch has a post well worth reading on the Al-Qaeda’s diminishing influence in the Arab world:

The Arab media’s indifference to the story speaks to a vitally important trend. Al-Qaeda’s attempted acts of terrorism simply no longer carry the kind of persuasive political force with mass Arab or Muslim publics which they may have commanded in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

It’s not so much that al-Qaeda is irrelevant – it isn’t – but, rather, that it is, and has increasingly become, beside the point. Having lived in Jordan in 2008 and now in Doha, it’s really quite remarkable the extent to which al-Qaeda doesn’t figure into Arab conversations about the future of the Arab world. Except it’s not remarkable.

Al-Qaeda was never the threat some thought it was, and others wanted it to be. Al-Qaeda was never going to become mainstream, because other organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, that were strong opponents of al-Qaeda were already quite popular, commanding the loyalty of millions in the region. These were the mainstream, nonviolent Islamists, and it was never coincidental that Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s no. 2, had written an entire book accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of betraying the Islamic cause by, among other things, participating in elections.

To be sure, Al-Qaeda had gained sympathy in the years after 9/11, largely due to the perception that they were the only ones actively confronting the United States. But sympathy is different than support, and al-Qaeda could never really claim much of the latter. But then again, it was never al-Qaeda’s objective to gain mass support or become what might be called a membership organization. It’s model has always been different, to use small numbers for big effect, and, in this, there is little doubt they had succeeded, at least for a time.

What people seem to forget is that al-Qaeda wasn’t influential for what it was – or perhaps even for what it did – but, rather, for how others reacted to it, namely the Bush administration.