In distress, al-Qaeda is seeking to use the Palestinian question to improve its image, but is finding there is no easy way to back its promises with action.

Something bad is happening to al-Qaeda. Although it is achieving considerable successes, along with its local allies, on its current main fronts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, its campaign in the highly prized Iraqi arena, where it took the lead, is collapsing. Moreover, al-Qaeda has failed to carry out any high-profile attacks against ‘Western crusaders’ in the United States or Europe in four years. Limited in their ability to operate, al-Qaeda’s leaders have saturated jihadi forums with recorded statements but found that they can barely break out of this relatively small pool of sympathisers. The Western media pays little attention to their almost predictable rants and threats, and even the Arab media shows much less interest than in the past. Even worse, growing dissatisfaction with al-Qaeda’s mode of operations and its responsibility for the killing of numerous Muslims has led to a noticeable decline in its image throughout the Muslim world.

While its ability to operate in the heart of the Middle East is in decline, al-Qaeda has issued increasing numbers of statements dedicated to the Palestinian issue, in which it expresses support for the Palestinians, identifies with their plight, and accuses Arab regimes of abandoning their Palestinian brethren for cooperation with Israel. Many statements also attack Hamas’s positions and ask Palestinians to prepare for the arrival of their jihadi brothers. The increased attention is not coincidental. In distress, al-Qaeda is seeking to use the Palestinian question to improve its image by presenting itself as the true defender of the Palestinian people.

Al-Qaeda’s growing pains

Long a champion of war against the US-led ‘Zionist–crusaders’ alliance, al-Qaeda has had little to show its sympathisers in recent years. It succeeded in dragging the United States and NATO into what seems like an unwinnable war in Afghanistan and was instrumental in spreading instability in Pakistan. It also bled US forces in Iraq. But al-Qaeda has played mostly a supporting role in the Afghan and Pakistani arenas, with the Taliban taking the lead, and botched its campaign in Iraq. Its loss in Iraq is particularly disappointing for an organisation that values the establishment of a base in the heart of the Middle East even more than success in Central Asia. There was a time when al-Qaeda believed that victory was at hand, and had begun to prepare for the post-US period. Today, its Iraq campaign is in shambles. Moreover, al-Qaeda’s ‘bread and butter’, attacks in ‘crusader’ countries, have been largely absent. For eight years it has failed to penetrate the American security wall, and has not carried out a significant operation on a Western target outside the Middle East since the 2005 London bombings.

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Barak Mendelsohn is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Haverford College. He is the author of Combating Jihadism: American Hegemony and Interstate Cooperation in the War on Terrorism (University of Chicago Press, 2009).

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