Bin Laden's Struggle for Relevance

Bin Laden’s taking of credit for the attempted crotch bombing on Christmas Day is a sign of desperation, an attempt to preserve what little is left of his image of being divinely guided and powerful in an almost inhuman manner. There is no evidence that bin Laden had any role in the plot, aside from obviously setting up the original al-Qaeda network, but he has to take credit for something at this point.

Bin Laden’s message is more than the product of a large ego. It is part of a strategy for survival. Al-Qaeda has been unable to repeat an attack on the scale of 9/11, and since those attacks, U.S. forces have overthrown the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, numerous Muslim countries have taken a harder line against it, and the group has suffered a dramatic drop in popularity as a result of its failures and its killing of eight times as many Muslims as non-Muslims.

Confidence in bin Laden and Sunni jihadists as a whole is dropping as well, particularly since the turnaround in Iraq. Al-Qaeda’s inability to spark a popular uprising or anything remotely resembling the resistance of the mujahideen that fought the Soviets is a potentially crippling blow to its prestige. This makes it all the more important that it creates a mini-state in Pakistan, makes visible advances in Afghanistan, and seizes Somalia, Yemen, or some other territory. Dr. al-Fadl, the former mentor of Ayman al-Zawahiri, has viciously criticized al-Qaeda for its tactics, even going so far as to say it is not acting in accordance with Allah’s will or it wouldn’t have brought such misery to the Muslim world and suffered defeats.

The failure of al-Qaeda and the Sunni jihadists, particularly those that kill civilians and use suicide bombers, is leaving open a window for two forces to emerge: moderates and the Iranian regime and its proxies. There are those Muslims, like those marching on the streets of Tehran, who point to al-Qaeda and the failures of tyrannical governments to provide for their people as proof that the entire ideology of radical Islam needs to be done away with. Then there are those still committed to armed jihad, but have lost faith in the Sunni extremists. For them, Iran is filling the void as a more credible leader of the fight against the West’s so-called oppression.