There is a lot of reporting on how terrorist groups get started and how they develop, but very little about how they end. Obama administration officials have been saying for weeks that its drone attacks over the past year have got al-Qaida on the run, but experts say it isn't just drone attacks that are weakening al-Qaida. The group is defeating itself.
Actor Kiefer Sutherland plays Jack Bauer on the hit Fox show m>24. For years, the show was ahead of the curve on terrorism, but this season will be its last. One expert says ultimately that's one way terrorist movements end, too: They lose their audience.
Actor Kiefer Sutherland plays Jack Bauer on the hit Fox show m>24. For years, the show was ahead of the curve on terrorism, but this season will be its last. One expert says ultimately that's one way terrorist movements end, too: They lose their audience. Michael Muller/FOX
Al-Qaida is still a serious threat, and nothing could deny the fact the group is focused on attacking the U.S. any way it can. But if history is any guide, terrorist groups can eventually burn out.
The Ways A Group Can End
Audrey Kurth Cronin, a professor at the National Defense University, lists the way such movements end.
"There are different ways that groups end, and those include decapitation, the capture or the killing of the leader," she said. "Sometimes negotiations can help lead to the end — success which is, by the way, relatively rare; failure where groups lose popular support; and finally reorientation of the violence of a group."
In other words, the group comes to the conclusion that terrorist attacks aren't getting them any closer to their goal. That's basically what happened with the Irish Republican Army in the late 1990s. A car bombing carried out by an IRA splinter group in Omagh, Northern Ireland, in 1998 killed 29 people, including nine children. Cronin, who wrote a book called How Terrorism Ends, said that bombing sparked such outrage among the people of Northern Ireland that it gave impetus to the Good Friday peace talks.
Support Among Muslims
When it comes to al-Qaida, Cronin sees the group waning because it is losing support among the world's Muslims.
"You can really see a sea change in the Muslim world with respect to its attitude toward al-Qaida," she said. "And I think there is a broad feeling that al-Qaida has hurt Muslims more than anyone else."
According to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 99 percent of al-Qaida's victims in 1997 outside the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq were non-Western. In 2008, 96 percent of them were. Cronin says that those kinds of numbers — not just drone attacks — could lead to al-Qaida's undoing.
"Popular repulsion to that kind of behavior is a classic way for a group to be undermined and sometimes reach its end," she said.
Gregory McNeal, who teaches national security law at Pepperdine Law School, says the U.S. can accelerate al-Qaida's demise by eroding the group's support among Muslims.
"What's really been neglected for a long period of time is this political component," he said.
McNeal says the U.S. can try to delegitimize the organization, undermine its grass-roots support and the foot soldiers willing to carry out attacks.
That's already happening. Polls carried out in Muslim countries by the Pew Charitable Trust late last year show a huge shift in public sentiment against al-Qaida. Pakistanis with an unfavorable opinion of al-Qaida jumped from 34 percent to 61 percent last year. Only 9 percent of those surveyed in Pakistan have a favorable view of al-Qaida.
Shifting U.S. Attitudes
Then there are attitudes about terrorism in the U.S. For the past decade, the Fox show 24 has built a franchise on America's fascination and fear of terrorism. Remember when Jack Bauer was cool? The show 24 was often ahead of the curve. It had a black president, years before President Obama. It offered a window into the fight against terrorism. It helped fuel a serious debate over the use of torture.
And now Fox has just announced that the ticking clock is winding down — this is 24's last season. So is this another case of the writers of 24 predicting the future?
"It probably doesn't change our analysis too much," McNeal says. "But certainly suggests something about pop culture-wise thinking about terrorism. Maybe we're all just bored with it."
Boredom is like a death sentence for terrorists. This is one way these movements can end: like 24, they lose their audience.