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Despite the many brickbats of the media, al Qaeda has been defeated in Iraq, and is now retreating to lick its wounds where it can. If it can. Just over four and a half years, al Qaeda has gone from being the dominant terrorist group in the world to a defeated shell of its former self. In trying to defeat the United States, al Qaeda made three big mistakes: They fought the last information war, they underestimated the American leadership, and they also managed to anger the Iraqi people.
From the moment the United States and al Qaeda began fighting in Afghanistan, the terrorists were looking for a chance to re-create images similar to those of American troops being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 or Walter Cronkite calling the Vietnam War a stalemate in 1968. It was hoped that such a moment would cause a dramatic drop in support for the war among the American people and force the United States out of Iraq. It did not happen.
The first problem was that al Qaeda failed to realize just how much the terrain had shifted on the media battlefield, particularly the growth of alternative outlets. In 1993, CNN was the only 24-hour news network. In 1996, two other 24-hour news networks were founded, MSNBC on July 15, and Fox News on October 7. These started to establish competition. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Fox News began pulling ahead of the other two networks, largely because it was taking a position that was seen as being reasonably supportive of the American efforts.
Also on the media front, the Internet was already becoming a major player. In 1998, Matt Drudge was showing that one person with a web site could break a major story. In 2004, a few bloggers were able to start the chain of events that led to Dan Rather's retirement from CBS. In 2006, bloggers are now an acknowledged player on the media battlefield. These efforts were dismissed by al Qaeda, and as a result, while al Qaeda hit its target, the effect was grossly minimized due to the fact that the "silent majority" now had tools by which they could be heard. The media created a false picture after the 1968 Tet Offensive, but was unable to do the same in Iraq.
The next mistake was underestimating American leadership. Al Qaeda assumed that the posture of the Clinton Administration (specifically, treating terrorism as a law-enforcement issue) would continue. Instead, the Bush Administration went after al Qaeda's host (the Taliban regime Afghanistan), then proceeded to go after another regime that sponsored terrorism (Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq - as indicated by documents recovered after the liberation of Iraq in 2003). Then, when the media firestorms hit, rather than fold as the Clinton Administration did after the CNN images were shown in 1993, the Bush Administration stayed the course. This eventually unnerved al Qaeda, and led to its third, and most fatal, mistake.
The third mistake was to wage a campaign of terror against Iraqi civilians. This was intended to intimidate them into at least acquiescing to al Qaeda's presence, if not supporting al Qaeda at all. It didn't work. Instead, as the car bombs went off , and drew CNN headlines in the United States, al Qaeda managed to become more and more unpopular with Iraqis. Even the Arab Sunnis began to view the Americans, who had displaced them from the power they had held under Saddam, as a better option than supporting al Qaeda. Eventually, the Sunnis joined the democratic process and when that happened, al Qaeda's eventual defeat was assured with increasing Sunni participation over three elections in the space of less than a year.
These three mistakes resulted in the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq, a defeat has left that group largely discredited. Osama bin Laden is now reduced to making audio tapes with grand pronouncements which have little or no likelihood of ever becoming reality, since al Qaeda has no safe havens where they can train new recruits, nor countries willing to support them. In less than five years, al Qaeda has gone from being feared by the world, to little more than a sideshow in the long war that the United States is now fighting. - Harold C. Hutchison (firstname.lastname@example.org)