July 3, 2006:
In the last four weeks, al Qaeda has lost three of its top leaders in Iraq. These include the top guy, Zarqawi, who died on June 7th. Two weeks later, the al Qaeda religious leader, Mansur al Mashhadani was killed. Last week Abu al Afghan (i.e., "The Afghan"), the head of al Qaeda forces in Anbar province (western Iraq) was killed. It is believed that al Afghan was recently moved over to command of all non-Iraqi al Qaeda volunteers in the country. This is a particularly crucial job, as foreigners are used for most suicide missions. Also, it's been increasingly difficult to keep the foreigners secure before they are needed for a mission. Because of all those suicide bomb attacks, al Qaeda is a hated organization in Iraq, even among many Sunni Arabs. That, and the increasing availability of cell phone service, and Iraqi police tip-lines to call, has made it much more difficult to keep foreign terrorists hidden from the authorities. The damage done to the al Qaeda terrorist network can be seen in the increasing number terror bombings against "soft" targets. Market places are a favorite, but even that is not always possible. More of the bombers are getting caught at checkpoints, where the suicide bombers usually kill only themselves, before the police can shoot them dead and recover their bomb intact. Capturing intact bombs enables the forensics to identify who built it. Each bomb building crew leaves behind tell-tale signs, and things like fingerprints and DNA evidence. Often the fingerprints are already on file, as several of the known bomb makers are graduates of American universities. The Sunni Arabs always had a near monopoly on things like studying in foreign universities. Details on all of this is kept secret, lest the enemy know how close, or not, they are to getting caught. But many more bomb makers are getting caught, and reports from the troops indicates a demonstrable decline in the quality of terrorist bombs.
Keeping track of who is winning in the war on terror is particularly difficult because there are no conventional front lines. Control of territory is less important than public opinion. This is complicated by the fact that there is a large anti-war movement in many of the nations fighting terrorists. Historians will have a fine time with this one, especially several generations in the future. At the moment, however, the anti-war attitudes further complicate any attempts to keep track of who is winning and losing. That's mainly because the anti-war people, including many in the media, have taken it as an article of faith that anti-terrorism efforts are either morally wrong, illegal or ineffective. Success is ignored or given some very odd spin. For example, the fact that there have been no Islamic terrorist attacks in the U.S. for the last five years is attributed, not to the dozens of Islamic terrorists who have been arrested (or entrapped, according to the anti-war interpretation), but to a decision by al Qaeda High Command to hold off until a truly spectacular attack could be made. Meanwhile, reports from the troops, via email, blogs and, well, ask them, that their efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, have been successful, are dismissed because the troops are too close to the action to understand what is really going on (or other dismissive interpretations along similar lines.) Opposition to the Iraq war has become something of a faith based undertaking
Meanwhile, there are indicators of movement in the war on terror. Public opinion in Moslem nations has turned against al Qaeda since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That war gave al Qaeda an opportunity to show the world what they were really like. Terrorist attacks on thousands of Moslems was not what many people expected. It is often forgotten that the main reason for al Qaeda is to set right the corrupt and tyrannical governments of the Middle East. Islamic radicals have actually succeeded in doing this three times in the last two decades (Afghanistan, Iran and Sudan). In all cases, the religious dictatorship proved worse than the government it replaced. Al Qaeda, like dedicated Marxists, don't see this as failure, but merely poor implementation. Their faith in their cause, and murderous methods, remains firm. Well, not as firm as it used to be if you consult the opinion polls, or ask around about the talk in the coffee shops and other hangouts.
The basic problem in the war on terror is the inability, so far, of many Middle Eastern nations to govern themselves. The rest of the world, in a time-honored fashion, has largely adopted a hands-off attitude towards this mess. Even the UN considers it bad manners to invade other countries, even if the victim is a hated tyrant. The reason for that attitude is simple, many UN members are nations run by tyrants, or nations that don't mind doing business with tyrants, and prefer tyrants to nations with no government at all. But when terrorists commit mass murder, as they did on September 11, 2001, many people change their attitudes towards tyrants. That brought about the current split over counter-terrorism tactics, and how to define who is even winning. Most of the world is content to leave the tyrants along, treat the Islamic terrorism as a police matter, and hope that nothing really bad happens.
Meanwhile, looking at the current situation like a historian, it would appear that the terrorists are losing. But, then, historically, they all do, eventually. Getting there, however, it proving more interesting than most people anticipated.