How Al Qaeda has become a rock star cliché

Over at Wired, Spencer Ackerman assesses how low al Qaeda has fallen: Nine years ago, al Qaeda crashed a plane into the Pentagon and came dangerously close to taking out the White House. Now it wants to hit places like Cosi and Potbelly during the lunch rush in the hope of taking out "a few ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Over at Wired, Spencer Ackerman assesses how low al Qaeda has fallen:

Nine years ago, al Qaeda crashed a plane into the Pentagon and came dangerously close to taking out the White House. Now it wants to hit places like Cosi and Potbelly during the lunch rush in the hope of taking out "a few government employees," writes an extremist using the name Yahya Ibrahim, who also wrote for the launch issue.

That’s not the only idea Inspire floats for al Qaeda wannabes. Got a pickup truck? Why not create the "ultimate mowing machine" by welding steel blades to the grill and driving up on crowded sidewalks to "mow down the enemies of Allah?"

Over at Wired, Spencer Ackerman assesses how low al Qaeda has fallen:

Nine years ago, al Qaeda crashed a plane into the Pentagon and came dangerously close to taking out the White House. Now it wants to hit places like Cosi and Potbelly during the lunch rush in the hope of taking out "a few government employees," writes an extremist using the name Yahya Ibrahim, who also wrote for the launch issue.

That’s not the only idea Inspire floats for al Qaeda wannabes. Got a pickup truck? Why not create the "ultimate mowing machine" by welding steel blades to the grill and driving up on crowded sidewalks to "mow down the enemies of Allah?"

But it’s "paramount" to target government workers, Ibrahim boasts, "and the location would also give the operation additional media attention," according to our friend James Gordon Meek of the New York Daily News. In other words, killing a lot of people all at once is less important than letting Americans — and government workers in particular — know they aren’t safe in their capitol city.

Two thoughts. First, this will be an interesting test of homeland security priorities. If al Qaeda is relying on disaffected Americans to do their dirty work for them on U.S. soil, then we will soon see just how many AQ sympathizers there really are in the United States. If nothing happens on this front before the midterms, however, then I’m going to conclude that al Qaeda’s latest tactics are a big flop.

Second, even if AQ’s latest gambit succeeds in fomenting one or two attacks, this is really and truly small beer. Al Qaeda is now following the narrative arc of VH1’s Behind the Music franchise

ANNOUNCER: Al Qaeda had burst onto the global scene with an array of pyrotechnic successes. After the 9/11 attacks, they seemed unstoppable. Even after losing their base in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora seemed the stuff of legend. It looked like the supergroup created by a construction magnate from Saudi Arabia and a surgeon from Egypt would never fade away. 

As the years passed, however, al Qaeda found it difficult to top their greatest hits. For a few years they coasted on prior successes, along with minor hits in Bali, Madrid, London, and parts of the Middle East. By 2009, however, their lack of success was becoming noticeable. 

FORMER AQ MEMBER: Oh, yeah, it drove Osama crazy. He’d keep saying, "we need to top 9/11." It started to drive al-Zawahiri nuts. Why do you think he made that stupid "house Negro" tape? 

ANNOUNCER: By 2010, al Qaeda was a shell of their former selves, and in a strange reversal of fortune, relied on their groupies to help them out. 

TERRORIST ANALYST: You knew they were desperate when they started calling on their tribute bands to perform for them. "Bomb this for us, shoot that for us." That’s the last act of a desperate group. 

FORMER AQ SYMPATHIZER: That English-language Inspire magazine was the last straw for me. I mean, seriously, it was clear that they had sold out by then. I only think about their earlier work when I think of them now. Seriously, did Tucker Carlson design that thing? 

ANNOUNCER: By late 2010, the Mexican drug cartels were all the rage. Al Qaeda’s time… had come and gone. 

Hopefully, there will be no third act in which al Qaeda bounces back with a comeback hit only to fall prey to a shame spiral. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he is the co-director of the Russia and Eurasia Program. Twitter: @dandrezner

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