As Support Fades, Al-Qaida Shows Signs Of Decline 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's not just drone attacks that are weakening al-Qaida — the group is defeating itself.
NPR logo

As Support Fades, Al-Qaida Shows Signs Of Decline

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
As Support Fades, Al-Qaida Shows Signs Of Decline

As Support Fades, Al-Qaida Shows Signs Of Decline

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


We have done quite a bit of reporting on how terrorist groups get started and how they develop. Now, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has a story about how a terrorist movement can end. Obama administration officials have been saying that al-Qaida is on the run. They say hundreds of drone attacks over the past year have hobbled its ranks. As Dina reports, it isn't just the drone attacks that are weakening al-Qaida. The group may be defeating itself.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: I should begin by saying that al-Qaida is still a very serious threat, and nothing in this report denies the fact that al-Qaida is very focused on attacking the U.S. any way it can. But if history is any guide, terrorist groups can eventually burn out.

Professor AUDREY KURTH CRONIN (National Defense University): There are different ways that groups end and those include decapitation, or the capture or killing of the leader.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Audrey Kurth Cronin is with the National Defense University. She lists the ways terrorist movements have ended in the past.

Prof. CRONIN: Sometimes, negotiations can help lead to the end: success - which is, by the way, relatively rare - failure, where groups lose popular support; and then finally, reorientation of the violence of a group.

TEMPLE-RASTON: 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 IRA in the late 1990s. A 1998 car bombing, carried out by an IRA splinter group in Omagh, 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.

When it comes to al-Qaida, Cronin sees the group waning because it is losing support among the world's Muslims.

Prof. CRONIN: I mean, you can really see a sea change in the Muslim world with respect to its attitude toward al-Qaida. I think there is a broad feeling that al-Qaida has hurt Muslims more than anyone else.

TEMPLE-RASTON: According to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 99 percent of al-Qaida's victims outside the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq were non-Western in 2007. In 2008, 96 percent of them were. Cronin says those kinds of numbers - not drone attacks - could lead to al-Qaida's undoing.

Prof. CRONIN: And popular repulsion to that kind of behavior is a classic way for a group to be undermined and sometimes, to reach its end.

Professor GREGORY McNEAL (National Security Law, Pepperdine Law School): What's really been neglected for a long period of time is this political component.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Gregory McNeal teaches national security at Pepperdine Law School. He says the U.S. can accelerate al-Qaida's demise by eroding its support among Muslims.

Prof. McNEAL: Trying to delegitimize the organization, trying to undermine its grassroots support, the components of the foot soldiers who are willing to carry out these types of attacks.

TEMPLE-RASTON: 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.

Then, there are the attitudes about terrorism in this country. For the past decade, the Fox show "24" has built a franchise on America's fascination and fear about terrorism.

(Soundbite of TV program, "24")

Mr. KIEFER SUTHERLAND (Actor): (As Jack Bauer) Erwich is gone. The town is...

TEMPLE-RASTON: Remember when Jack Bauer was cool?

(Soundbite of TV program, "24")

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) Damn it.

TEMPLE-RASTON: "24" was often ahead of the curve. It had a black president, years before Obama. It offered a window into the fight against terrorism. It helped fuel a serious debate over the use of torture.

Prof. MCNEAL: And now has fizzled out.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Again, that was Gregory McNeal of Pepperdine.

Fox has just announced that the ticking clock is winding down, and that this is "24's" last season. So is this another case of the writers of "24" predicting the future?

Prof. McNEAL: It probably doesn't change our analysis too much, but it certainly suggests something about - pop culture-wise, thinking about terrorism. Maybe we're all just bored with it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TEMPLE-RASTON: In all seriousness, boredom is like a death sentence for terrorists. This is one way these movements can end. Like "24," they lose their audience.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.