In December 2007, al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, made a little-noticed nod to the fact that his organization's popularity was taking a nosedive: He solicited questions from jihadi forum participants in an online question-and-answer session. It looked like a rather desperate gambit to win back al Qaeda’s dwindling support. And it was. Since the September 11 attacks, the terrorist organization and its affiliates had killed thousands of Muslims -- countless in Iraq, and hundreds more in Afghanistan and Pakistan that year alone. For a group claiming to defend the Islamic ummah, these massacres had dealt a devastating blow to its credibility. The faithful, Zawahiri knew, were losing faith in al Qaeda.
Zawahiri's Web session did not go well. Asked how he could justify killing Muslim civilians, he answered defensively in dense, arcane passages that referred readers to other dense, arcane statements he had already made about the matter. A typical question came from geography teacher Mudarris Jughrafiya, who asked: "Excuse me, Mr. Zawahiri, but who is it who is killing with your excellency's blessing the innocents in Baghdad, Morocco, and Algeria? Do you consider the killing of women and children to be jihad?"
Like a snake backed into a corner, however, a weakened al Qaeda isn’t necessarily less dangerous. In the first comprehensive look of its kind, Foreign Policy offers the Almanac of Al Qaeda, a detailed accounting of how al Qaeda's ranks, methods, and strategy have changed over the last decade and how they might evolve from here. What emerges is a picture of a terrorist vanguard that is losing the war of ideas in the Islamic world, even as its violent attacks have grown in frequency.
It's not because the United States is winning -- most Muslims still have extremely negative attitudes toward the United States because of its wars in the Muslim world and history of abuses of detainees. It's because Muslims have largely turned against Osama bin Laden's dark ideology. Favorable ratings of the terrorist leader and the suicide bombings he advocates fell by half in the two most-populous Islamic countries, Indonesia and Pakistan, between 2002 and 2009. In Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's ruthless campaign of sectarian violence obliterated the support al Qaeda had enjoyed there, deeply damaging its brand across the Arab world.
The jihad has also dramatically failed to achieve its central aims. Bin Laden's primary goal has always been regime change in the Middle East, sweeping away the governments from Cairo to Riyadh with Taliban-style rule. He wants Western troops and influence out of the region and thinks that attacking the "far enemy," the United States, will cause U.S.-backed Arab regimes -- the "near enemy" -- to crumble. For all his leadership skills and charisma, however, bin Laden has accomplished the opposite of what he intended. Nearly a decade after the 9/11 attacks, his last remaining safe havens in the Hindu Kush are under attack, and U.S. soldiers patrol the streets of Kandahar and Baghdad.
If this looks like victory in the so-called war on terror, it is an incomplete one. The jihadi militants led by bin Laden have proved surprisingly resilient, and al Qaeda continues to pose a substantial threat to Western interests overseas. It could still pull off an attack that would kill hundreds, as the most recent plot to bring down Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009 attests. We know from history that small, determined groups can sustain their bloody work for years with virtually no public support. Al Qaeda's leaders certainly think that their epic struggle against the West in defense of true Islam will last for generations. -- Peter Bergen