The threat of al Qaeda: dimmed or not?

As the media’s Super Bowl-like lead-up to 9/11 continues, I found myself listening to an NPR piece on al Qaeda. The broadcaster interviewed an expert at the Rand Corp. who was saying bristling things about how it had spread to many different countries and through its ‘affiliates’ was more dangerous now than ever. She made this network of networks out to be a kind of process innovation for terrorists, making it impossible to stop. I found myself thinking that I was hearing something out of Ralph Ellison or Pynchon, where paranoid people make things true by saying implying the rest of us can’t really see the truth. “It’s al Qaeda, stupid. Just because we’ve wiped out almost all of its leadership and cut off its access to funding doesn’t mean it isn’t more dangerous than ever.”

I thought of Scott Atran, who told the Beyond 9/11 conference I attended in Cambridge England two weeks ago that “never have so few people with so few actual means caused so much fear in so many.” His narrative of al Qaeda is that the story is largely over for the group. The uprisings in places like Egypt have usurped its role in the Arab world. Atran says it has less than 100 followers worldwide, not the 4,000 being bandied about on NPR. The experts on NPR said that al Qaeda was attracting better educated recruits these days; Atran’s research suggests the opposite — that more of its recruits are poorly educated now. Perhaps I trust him more because I was able to see his research, laid out in his book “Talking to the Enemy.” Maybe it was context — he was able to talk for 90 minutes and then answer questions for another 90. But I found his perspective more accurate.
I must blog about his talk. I am behind on posting things from that fascinating event.

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