Is the Al Qaeda Brand Fading?

Are we now all doomed to think in terms of markets?  Even terrorists fighting to the death against “The Great Satan” appear to be struggling for market share.  Or is it that we just can help seeing this through the lens of our own market-driven way of thinking?

Osama Bin Laden’s recent speech on the anniversary of 9/11 has generated a storm of commentary by mid-east experts that raises this issue.  Marc Lynch, writing on the Foreign Policy website, sees evidence of a leader attempting an organizational turnaround: “one of the reasons for al-Qaeda’s recent decline has been its general exposure — or branding, if you prefer — as an extreme salafi-jihadist movement rather than as an avatar of Muslim resistance.”  Lynch continues, “It has lost ground from the brutality and ideological extremism of its chosen representatives in Iraq … and because of the battles it has chosen with far more popular Islamist movements such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.”  If it has lost the popularity contest among brands, failing to attract customers, how can it catch up?

Time, claimed last week that history’s verdict is that Bin Laden has failed: “Even among those who share much of bin Laden’s animus toward the U.S. and Israel, al-Qaeda has remained largely irrelevant, its strategy of global jihad rejected in favor of an Islamist radicalism focused on more limited national goals.”  This sounds like an election campaign, or an all-out war between Coke and Pepsi.  Which version will consumers prefer?

Perhaps I am wrong, but it strikes me that terrorism is more than a media campaign.  To be sure, the bolsheviks and the menshiviks, scheming to bring down the Czar, did think about public opinion, at least the opinion of the workers and other potential allies.  They battled each other and others ferociously, but their primary focus was on finding the levers of power that would accomplish the revolution.  That was what was at stake for them.  I suspect that that is still what is at stake for Al Qaeda – and their “competitors.”

On the other hand, perhaps globalization has brought about an inescapable universal focus on the market, obliterating other goals – just as it has homogenized different cultures.  Perhaps victory now does in fact boil down to who wins space in the history books.

It is just too hard for me to believe that a suicide bomber cares enough about these internecine fights to give his life. I suspect their goals are not the same as ours.  Lawrence Wright reminded us in The New Yorker (see “Underestimating Al Qaeda“) that the danger continue to be real:  “Many hope Al Qaeda has been put to sleep, but the truth is, as long as bin Laden is free, he and his followers pose a threat.”  Thinking of them as another political party or brand runs the risk of making them seem all too familiar.