Al Qaeda on the Ropes

The terrorist group is reeling. But that doesn't mean the fight is over.

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.

Another problem for al Qaeda is that its brand is now closely identified with controversial suicide attacks that kill Muslims. Al Qaeda's senior leaders are aware of that danger. Just after 9/11, al Qaeda's leadership hesitated to embrace North African militants, even as those fighters talked openly of their transition from a local revolutionary group to one with al Qaeda-like goals. The leaders remembered the backlash against violent and doctrinaire jihadi movements, especially the murder of tens of thousands of Muslims in Algeria during the 1990s. Zawahiri saw firsthand the unintended consequences of excessive violence undermining jihadi movements in Egypt in the 1990s, and he tried to steer al Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate away from publicly reveling in its violence against Iraqis.

Counterterrorism successes have played a role as well in weakening al Qaeda. The decapitation of leadership across al Qaeda affiliates has limited these groups' ability to plot major attacks and has undermined the resonance of al Qaeda's message when prominent communicators are either captured or killed. Such activities have spurred popular backlash in some arenas, but they have no doubt had a major impact on the al Qaeda organization itself. Sometimes killing leadership has redirected the strategic focus of affiliates. From Marwan in the southern Philippines through Hambali, Dulmatin, and Abu Bakar Bashir in Indonesia, to Zarqawi in Iraq, Abdel Aziz al-Muqrin in Saudi Arabia, and Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, the elimination of leadership figures has moved the focus of jihadi affiliates toward local concerns rather than the United States.

As a result, some affiliates have abandoned the al Qaeda moniker, both to avoid attention from the United States and due to the weakening of the al Qaeda brand. Al Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate abandoned the label in 2006 and now operates as the Islamic State of Iraq. And the Yemeni Ansar al-Sharia, which has seized swaths of territory near the southern port of Aden, seems to have a relationship with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but has avoided taking the al Qaeda name. Jihadi groups with the most expansive local agenda seem to avoid the al Qaeda brand.

Another problem is that al Qaeda's affiliates tend to "think global" when they are losing the ability to "act local." There is dissonance between al Qaeda's effort to build a global brand and its ability to project power in regional settings. Al-Shabab is a good example. Pushed out of Mogadishu and battered by the international community and tribal forces in Somalia, the group is less capable of projecting power in Somalia today than it was three years ago. Even reports of the group's recruitment of Westerners over the past half-decade, many of which came from the Somali-American community around Minneapolis, have declined amid a renewed push against extremism. Al-Shabab's decision to swear allegiance to al Qaeda comes at a moment of weakness, not strength.

One measure of al Qaeda's decreased brand is the attention it gets in international media. After 9/11, the international community pilloried Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite channel, for showing al Qaeda propaganda videos at length. Today, though such propaganda is available online, the reach of such material is an order of magnitude smaller. Al Jazeera is no longer seen as too close to jihadists, but rather as a critical media outlet that has contributed some of the most daring and powerful coverage of the Arab uprisings. The impact is that voices like Zawahiri's are largely unheard outside already friendly circles.

These successes come not just from Western powers but from political leaders across the globe who confronted al Qaeda, even when doing so required serious political courage. Operations in the southern Philippines, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria have limited the affiliates' ability to build the sort of networks Jemaah Islamiyah used to devastating effect a decade ago. Consistent U.S. intelligence and military assistance to these countries has been vital, from sharing technical information that helped local units track terrorists to military backing for strikes in isolated areas, such as the Philippines' archipelago.

None of this is to say that al Qaeda is dead. Jihadists in Iraq are aggressively eyeing Syria, where sectarian dynamics and escalating violence offer the group an opportunity to project influence. Besides the still-dangerous al-Shabab in Somalia, al Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate has proved resilient and forceful locally, and the allied group Ansar al-Sharia has proved its ability to take and hold territory amid the country's political unrest.

It's important to remember, though, that the fight against al Qaeda was begun not to prevent jihadists from exerting power in Yemeni political squabbles, but to limit attacks on the United States and the West. That's why the elimination of Awlaki was significant: not because he was the leader of AQAP -- he wasn't -- but because as an American, he was uniquely positioned to threaten the United States. Effective counterterrorism policy must be efficient to be sustainable. That means killing or detaining individuals that offer al Qaeda unique capabilities to threaten the United States; it also means being willing to call al Qaeda's bluff by responding with resolute subtlety to empty provocations.

Al Qaeda's leaders brag that they only have to plant their black flag in a far-flung corner of the globe in order to provoke a massive, and potentially counterproductive, American response. Ten years after 9/11, we should not hesitate to attack real threats, but must be tenacious enough to carefully ensure that we are reacting to a persistent threat, not the empty fluttering of an al Qaeda that intends to provoke us into hurting ourselves.

Al Qaeda is down, but not out. The group's ideology is now global, and a small but serious rash of homegrown arrests underscores the persistence of this message over the course of years. Carefully calibrated and quietly delivered counterterrorism support -- training, money, technology, even military backing -- to regions that face an ongoing threat, from Africa's Sahel to the southern Philippines, could prevent a local Qaedist group from evolving into a more globally oriented threat. Engagement with the Islamists who gain power in the new Arab world, such as in Egypt, Tunisia, and potentially Syria, will be critical. Recent arrests of extremists in Tunisia highlight how more moderate Islamist groups can help isolate radicals on the fringe. But the outcome of the Arab revolutions is far from clear; Syria, Yemen, Libya, and even Egypt could slip into chaos. And al Qaeda, while very much in decline, is patient.

Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images


How Hollywood Conquered the World (All Over Again)

For all the talk of American decline, there’s one thing we still make better than anyone on the planet: movies.

In the frenzied final weeks before the Feb. 26 Academy Awards, a curious behind-the-scenes battle was taking place to persuade Hollywood that the leading Oscar contender, The Artist, was an American film -- even though a Frenchman wrote and directed it, another Frenchman produced it with French money, and a Frenchman and Frenchwoman are the two leads. Harvey Weinstein, head of The Weinstein Company, which is distributing the acclaimed movie, even persuaded the City of Los Angeles to proclaim January 31 "The Artist Day," arguing that the movie was shot there. Indeed The Artist, a black-and-white tale about a silent star's fall from grace and subsequent return to fame, has a chance to become the first non-Anglo-Saxon film ever to win the Best Picture Oscar, even though it has made just $29 million in the United States since it went into general release on January 20.

Foreign films simply don't play with American audiences. On average, foreign-language movies make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. box office, says Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office division of In fact, compared to Hollywood productions, foreign films don't even play that well in their home markets. Despite the relative decline of America and a huge spurt of filmmaking in countries such as Brazil, China, and South Korea, Hollywood still dominates in box offices across the world. James Cameron's Avatar remains the top-grossing film ever, and when Chinese authorities attempted to remove it from theaters, their actions caused protests. Although some of the world's top grossing films, like Rio, The Last Samurai, and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, were shot outside the United States or focus on other countries, all of the world's top 100 grossing films were Hollywood productions.

Dire predictions about Hollywood's demise have cropped up almost as frequently as blockbusters. Ever since the silent era and then the advent of television, naysayers have spoken of its impending collapse. In the early 1980s, Chariots of Fire producer David Puttnam said he believed Hollywood's future would lie in small-budget films that could compete with the rest of the world -- only to find that the opposite happened. Despite globalization's deleterious effect on the U.S. textile, automotive, computer industries, for movies it's still very much America's world.

That's especially true in America itself, where a resistance to foreign film has been helped by Americans' dislike of subtitles and lack of familiarity with dubbing -- unlike such countries as Germany, where dubbing is routine, or France, where locals have a choice between watching a dubbed version or a "version originale." In the decades prior to 1947, when the Supreme Court told the studios they had to divest themselves of their theater chains, it was against their interests to do anything that might encourage foreign filmmaking -- hence sophisticated dubbing technology never caught on. "We've tried to dub, but then the critics kill you -- and these films play to audiences that pay a lot of attention to reviews," says Mark Gill, the former president of Warner Independent Pictures.

Because investors don't expect foreign films to play well in the United States, still by far the world's largest and most important film market (China and Japan are vying for second place, but each brings in about one-tenth the combined U.S. and Canada box office), they don't get the same production and advertising budgets that Americans do. At the same time, broadcast television networks refuse to buy foreign-language products, leaving a crucial player in film financing absent when it comes to assembling the kind of multi-source deals that get most non-studio pictures made these days.

"We have a Lebanese film opening in the spring, Where Do We Go Now?, and in Lebanon it's about to become the top-grossing film ever, beating Titanic," says Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, one of the few companies that continue to back foreign releases in the U.S. Despite this, it will only open on 10 screens here, he says -- compared with 3,000-4,000 for major studio releases.

Production values for American films are vastly superior to foreign ones, helped by budgets that can exceed $200 million (100 times the price of many foreign films, and at least 30 times the estimated $6 million-plus budget of Where Do We Go Now?) And the marketing costs of movies have swollen so that even if a foreign film is less expensive than an American one, it is almost impossible to find a wide audience for it in the United States without spending millions of dollars.

There are exceptions, most notably 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which earned $128 million "domestically" -- as Hollywood executives like to describe North America -- but even that was written and produced by American James Schamus and directed by Taiwanese-American Ang Lee.

Most foreign films remain box-office busts. Schamus and Lee's subsequent Chinese-language Lust, Caution earned a paltry $4.6 million in the United States, compared to $62.4 million internationally. Iran's A Separation, the biggest earner so far among the films nominated for best foreign-language picture this year, has earned just $1.6 million domestically.

"For every Crouching Tiger, there are hundreds of foreign films that don't make any money here," says Dergarabedian. "In order to make films palatable to an American audience, they have to be in English. That's why you see American versions of films like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The Scandinavian version was perfectly good, but nobody saw it in the U.S."


There's a strange paradox at play here: While Hollywood films are losing audiences at home, where they're increasingly being siphoned away by social media, games, and the Internet, they're building them abroad. Revenues from American films outside North America constitute more than 60 percent of each year's take by the Hollywood studios, a number that's risen from under 40 percent several decades ago. Paramount Pictures, for instance, made $3.21 billion of its total $5.17 billion earnings in movie theaters for 2011 abroad. This is despite the fact that foreign-made films are gaining an increasing share of their own industries: Japanese are seeing more Japanese films than ever; so are Russians, Chinese, and Koreans. Box office is simply growing across the board in those countries.  

China, with a population of 1.3 billion and more than a thousand screens built each year, already has strict limits on the number of U.S. films that can be released there. And why should this change radically, when the U.S. remains so resistant to Chinese movies? Even China's biggest-budget film ever, Zhang Yimou's $90 million The Flowers of War, has made a mere $205,778 in the USA. "It was a complete flop," says Gill.

Without a strong export market, countries such as China are likely to resist American pressure to deal with the single biggest threat to studio revenue -- piracy -- which has grown rampant thanks to websites operated everywhere from Nigeria to Ukraine. One 2007 study estimated that the U.S. loses $58 billion per year to piracy of movies, television, music, and other intellectual property, and the studios are terrified this will kill their business if it increases. The newly signed deal between the United States and China, allowing more U.S. movies to be shown there, was hailed as revolutionary, adding 14 to the present 20 films that can be screened in that country each year. (The deal has the important caveat, however, that the films be in IMAX or 3D.)

Hollywood studios have started to invest in foreign films, and companies such as Sony and 20th Century Fox have established divisions that finance "indigenous" filmmaking (Hollywood parlance for foreign films), but these films are generally restricted to release in their own countries or ones with the same language, like Sony's co-financing of the Bollywood movie Saawariya and Warner Bros. with the Hindi film Chandni Chowk to China.

Way back at the dawn of film, the American dream was created by foreigners -- people like Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn, who had left their native Minsk and Warsaw. That is the great lure of Hollywood. It continues to draw major names such as Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who won an Oscar for The Lives of Others and then made the Johnny Depp vehicle The Tourist.

Philippe Falardeau, the French-Canadian director of Oscar nominee Monsieur Lazhar, admits, "I have tested the U.S. market -- I've been approached by agents and yes, I'd like to work in Hollywood." If Hollywood can continue to draw the best and brightest from abroad, no matter how far the rest of America declines, Hollywood will remain untouchable.