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The history of terrorist groups indicates the various ways in which they decline and end. Groups that achieve their objectives tend to have limited goals. Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, seeks maximalist goals that are unrealistic.
Audrey Kurth Cronin
The history of terrorist groups points to various ways they may decline and end, not all of [which]…are relevant to Al-Qaeda. For example, it is clear that Al-Qaeda will not end if Osama bin Laden is killed. Groups that have ended, such as Japan’s Aum Shinrikiyo or Peru’s Shining Path were hierarchical, reflecting to some degree a cult of personality, and lack[ed] a viable successor, none of which [applies to] Al-Qaeda.
Groups that have achieved their ends have had limited goals. Al-Qaeda [however] seeks maximalist goals: using violence to mobilise the global Muslim community, throw off the influence of the West, eliminate support for Arab regimes and establish a new world order (sometimes called a Caliphate) [that are] hardly realistic.
A loss of popular support has ended many terrorist groups, and it is a plausible scenario for Al-Qaeda. Support can be compromised through miscalculation, especially in targeting, and popular backlash. Or a campaign can fail to convey a positive image or progress toward its goals, which amply applies to Al-Qaeda.
While the group continues to be dangerous, the faltering popularity of this campaign with most Muslims provides clear evidence [that] this dynamic [is] underway.
For instance, a Pew Global Attitudes Project poll released in September showed a remarkable drop in support for suicide bombing and Osama bin Laden in key Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey and Jordan. In Pakistan, whereas some 41 percent approved of suicide terror attacks five years ago, that number has fallen to a mere five percent today.
In short, if we are thinking about classic pathways to the end, the secret to undermining this campaign is not "winning hearts and minds" but enhancing Al-Qaeda's tendency to lose them.
More terrorist attacks will be attempted and [several] will no doubt succeed. But it makes a significant difference whether such attacks are undertaken by a few recruits without proper training or support, or by those who have managed to visit an Al-Qaeda training camp.
Even in its diminished state, Al-Qaeda and its franchises remain armed and dangerous. But appreciating how terrorist campaigns actually end offers the greatest promise for [overcoming] the strategic myopia that currently grips much of Western counter-terrorism efforts, and for clarifying our political objectives.