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International Politics, Media Bias, On the Bookshelf

Book Review: The Twilight of Al Qaeda?

It’s been nearly a year since the death of Osama bin Laden, and the American public has become accustomed to hearing about an al Qaeda no longer under his leadership, be it in Yemen, Mali, or elsewhere. However, even while bin Laden was in hiding, al Qaeda was dominated by his micromanagement skills, whether it was the decision not to institute Anwar al-Awlaki head of Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) or suggestions on how to avoid drone strikes.

In his book, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad, Peter L. Bergen argues that al Qaeda is in twilight and that its new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, “is unlikely to turn things around” for this terrorist organization. “Far from being the inspiring orator that bin Laden was, Zawahiri is more like the pedantic, long-winded uncle who insists on regaling the family at Thanksgiving dinner with accounts of his arcane disputes with obscure enemies,” writes Bergen. “During 2011, Zawahiri’s half-dozen or so public disquisitions about the events of the Arab Spring were greeted by a collective yawn in the Middle East.”

“Not only was Zawahiri a black hole of charisma, he was an ineffective leader who was not well regarded or well liked even by the various jihadist groups from his native Egypt.” Bergen does not provide sources for this synopsis.

If things are so bleak for al Qaeda, then why doesn’t it roll over and go the way of many other terrorist organizations? According to National War College Professor Audrey Kurth Cronin, “[…] the average lifespan of groups that negotiate is between 20-25 years, whereas the average lifespan of terrorist groups overall tends to be about eight years.” Bergen envisions the possibility that AQAP might be able to create another Taliban-like haven for al Qaeda. “As the early great promise of the Arab Spring recedes, it is likely that Zawahiri will try to exploit the regional chaos to achieve his central goal: establishing a new haven for al-Qaeda,” writes Bergen. “The one place where he might be able to pull this off is Yemen,” he asserts.

It is useful to also note that bin Laden himself started counseling groups against adopting the al Qaeda name rather than face enhanced retaliation. “In memos he never dreamed would end up in the hands of the CIA, bin Laden advised other militant jihadist groups not to adopt the al-Qaeda moniker,” notes Bergen.

His book provides a good account of the decisions and analysis leading up to the execution of bin Laden, punctuated in some cases with gory details. “The SEALs grabbed bin Laden’s body and dragged it down the stairs of his residence, leaving a trail of bloody skid marks, all under the watchful eyes of Safia, bin Laden’s twelve-year-old daughter,” he writes. “The bodies of the three other men killed by the SEALs, the courier and his brother and Khalid bin Laden, lay scattered around the compound, blood oozing from their noses, ears, and mouths.” However, the author betrays his mainstream media background by taking time to jab at the Birther conspiracy and Donald Trump while recounting the days leading up to the attack in Abbottabad. “At the back of his mind, Obama was turning over the details of the Abbottabad operation, but he still managed to deliver a hilarious after-dinner monologue centered largely on the faux controversy about whether he was actually an American citizen,” recounts Bergen. “ […] [Donald] Trump listened to the president’s deft skewering with a pained smirk.”

A good read, albeit punctuated at times with references to outside events which, while building character, betray a liberal media bias. Bergen works for CNN and is the director of the national security studies program at the New America Foundation.

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