Bin Laden's Struggle for Relevance

It is becoming clearer and clearer that al-Qaeda and the tactics that define it are not working. This stands in sharp contrast to Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies who bring order, social services, and victories in battle using tactics more in line with guerilla warfare. On almost every front, from Yemen to Lebanon to Iraq to the Palestinian territories, the Iranians have had more success in asserting influence and combating the West than al-Qaeda. This shift is occurring despite the fact that the majority of the Muslim world is Sunni. Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad are viewed as nearly being puppets of the Iranians. Hezbollah has a huge amount of support among Sunnis despite their theological differences. The Muslim Brotherhood is growing closer to Iran, and al-Qaeda and the Taliban rely upon the Iranians for support, although debate continues about how extensive and critical it is.

Syria is firmly in Iran’s bloc. Qatar, despite its alliance with the U.S., has positioned itself with Iran. Iraq has obviously grown closer to Iran since the days of Saddam, publicly lashing out at Syria, but not Iran, for supporting the insurgents. Bahrain has a Shiite majority and Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province is up to 90 percent Shiite. Although the Gulf states live in fear of Iran, as this shift in power happens and doubts about the U.S. commitment to defend them rise, they will be tempted to cater to Iran’s increasing leadership role in the Muslim world for their own safety.

This competition doesn’t mean that Iran and al-Qaeda don’t cooperate, but bin Laden and those like him are still threatened by the increased attention the world is giving to Iran. Bin Laden needs a larger-than-life image of being America’s worst enemy, able to unleash his followers from around the world with a single decision. Expect al-Qaeda to try to demonstrate its ability and credibility as jihadists by increasing the tempo of smaller attacks in the West in order to steal the headlines. It also needs some sort of battlefield victory that allows it to create a safe haven, both for operational and ideological purposes. Bin Laden and al-Qaeda are also trying to repair his image by going to greater lengths to tie his actions to U.S. foreign policy and attempting to justify their killing of Muslims.

It is even possible, although not likely, that al-Qaeda and similar militants will try to gain some legitimacy by focusing on military targets and acting more as a guerilla warfare force as Iran’s proxies have successfully done. There will be academics in the West who try to argue that this shift means that the terrorists we’ve come to fear have been minimized and the armed elements of the Middle East are legitimate guerilla forces now simply seeking liberation. There are three types of jihadists, as I’ve previously pointed out, and we should take no comfort in the rise of the more politically skillful kind.