On Feb. 10, 2012, the emir of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, officially accepted Somalia's al-Shabab movement's pledge of allegiance. In a video statement, Zawahiri crowed that such displays indicate that "the jihadi movement is growing with God's help." This may have been true just before and after the 9/11 attacks, when "homegrown" jihadi extremists in Western countries and regional affiliates valued the al Qaeda brand. But today, al Qaeda's core organization in Pakistan is battered, the effort to spur homegrown jihadists in the West has faltered, and its regional affiliates are more often losing ground than gaining it.
Public displays of unity don't change the reality that -- more than a decade after their greatest triumph -- al Qaeda's central leadership and its affiliates are generally in decline.
After 9/11, al Qaeda's model seemed destined to spread. The plan was to support and inspire affiliate organizations, from the Philippines through Indonesia and into South Asia, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Africa. The central leadership would organize major attacks and develop propaganda while al Qaeda's web of regional partners traded their local reach for the use of a global brand that helped attract recruits, financial donors, and attention.
Affiliates from Indonesia to Iraq seemed to gain ground, spreading al Qaeda's ideology to reject Western cultural and political influence among local governments and conducting major attacks that showed their relevance. At least five close allies or co-branded al Qaeda affiliates conducted a major operation during the mid-2000s: Jemaah Islamiyah in Bali and Jakarta, al Qaeda's followers in Riyadh in 2003 and afterward, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other foreign fighters in Iraq, and groups in Algeria and Yemen against targets from oil facilities to U.N. offices. And new battlegrounds showed promise: Al-Shabab surged into Mogadishu, and the Pakistani Taliban threatened Pakistan's government.
Al Qaeda's expansion was particularly worrisome in regions where extremists could play on deep Islamist roots within the population. Indonesia, with a long history of Islamist politics, harbored the best-organized group beyond core al Qaeda. The string of attacks in Saudi Arabia looked like it might represent growing extremism among the conservative population of the Arabian Peninsula. Jihadists gathered in Iraq, which they considered this generation's Afghanistan, igniting sectarian tensions and briefly threatening to dominate swaths of western Iraq.
Yet a decade later, the strategy is faltering in almost every arena. Some affiliates remain focused on local agendas; others have been crippled by their own mistakes and operational successes against them. Two legs of al Qaeda's three-legged stool, the core group in Pakistan-Afghanistan and the affiliates, are weak. The third leg, so-called homegrown jihadists, has not shown the capability to pose more than a modest threat. Al Qaeda's allies are lethal and broadly dispersed, but they show little sign of producing the global revolution they espouse.
So what happened?
Al Qaeda was partially a victim of its own violent success. Political overreach and excessive violence undercut its claim to be a protector of Islam in the face of Western imperialism. Those failures have proved debilitating during the Arab Spring, where al Qaeda has been a sideshow to tech-savvy young people and more mainstream Islamist groups. Al Qaeda's schizophrenic reaction to the revolt in Libya -- backing the popular movement against Muammar al-Qaddafi but warning against the Western support for the uprising that helped the opposition succeed -- is symptomatic of a leadership that wants to stay relevant but has little street appeal. Al Qaeda's contortions reflect its desire to remain relevant in a dynamic news cycle by embracing wide-ranging affiliates, an approach that carries risk because many potential affiliates have little operational capability.