I’ve been writing for weeks now that the threat posed by al-Qaeda to the U.S. is a potent-but-diminished one; that al-Qaeda’s capacity for destruction reduces the further one goes from Waziristan; and that ultimately al-Qaeda is doomed by its lack of appeal to Muslim aspirations and interests. I could do this all day. But you should stop reading me and start reading Thomas Rid’s excellent, precise overview of the structural reasons why al-Qaeda is fucked in the Wilson Quarterly.

Perhaps the greatest tension between the local and global levels of the jihad grows out of a divide over appropriate targets and tactics. Classical Islamic legal doctrine sees armed jihad as a defensive struggle against persecution, oppression, and incursions into Muslim lands. In an attempt to mobilize Muslims around the world to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, Abdallah Azzam, an influential radical cleric who was assassinated in 1989, helped expand the doctrine of jihad into a transnational struggle by declaring the Afghan jihad an individual duty for all Muslims. Azzam also advocated takfir, a practice of designating fellow Muslims as infidels (kaffir) by remote excommunication in order to justify their slaughter. Al Qaeda ideologues upped the aggressive potential of such arguments and expanded the defensive jihad into a global struggle, effectively blurring the line between the “near” enemy—the Arab regimes deemed illegitimate “apostates” by the purists—and the “far” enemy, these regimes’ Western supporters.

In the remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan that produce many of today’s radicals, however, local and tribal affiliations are powerful. One U.S. political adviser who worked in Afghanistan’s Zabul Province, a hotbed of the insurgency, describes prevailing local sentiment as “valleyism” rather than nationalism [Rid refers to Matthew Hoh, in case you were wondering]. It is a force that drives the tribes to oppose anybody who threatens their traditional power base, foreign or not—a problem not just for the Taliban and Al Qaeda but for any Afghan government. Al-Zawahiri complained of this in a Even the students (talib) themselves had stronger affiliations to their tribes and villages . . . than to the Islamic emirate.” The provincial valleyists, to the distress of Al Qaeda’s more cosmopolitan agitators, are selfishly eyeing their own interests, with little appetite for international aggression and globe-spanning terrorist operations.

It never ceases to amaze me that in our political discourse, strains of analysis that highlight how massively screwed our adversaries are get described as “defeatist.” It does not follow from Rid’s analysis that the U.S. should kick back and do nothing while al-Qaeda implodes. But it does follow that the U.S. shouldn’t do anything that collapses al-Qaeda’s internal fissures and its fissures with its ostensible allies. That means no racial profiling at airports. I would contend it also means, somewhat counterintuitively, counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, worried as I am about the risks of accidental-guerrilla-creation.

Anyway, I could quote from Rid’s paper endlessly, so I’ll end this post in a second and you should read the whole thing. But I love this point of his:

[T]he global Al Qaeda movement is encountering strong centrifugal forces. The rank and file and the center are losing touch with each other. The vision of Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, who laid much of the ideological foundation for Al Qaeda’s global jihad, blends a Marxist-inspired focus on popular mass support with 21st-century ideas of networked, individual action. Al-Suri’s aim was to devise a method “for transforming excellent individual initiatives, performed over the past decades, from emotional pulse beats and scattered reactions into a phenomenon which is guided and utilized, and whereby the project of jihad is advanced so that it becomes the Islamic Nation’s battle, and not a struggle of an elite.” The global jihad was to function like an “operative system,” without vulnerable, old-fashioned organizational hierarchies. That method is intuitively attractive for a Facebook generation of well-connected young sympathizers, but the theory contains an internal contradiction. Self-recruited and “homegrown” terrorists present a wicked problem for Al Qaeda. As a bizarre type of self-appointed elite, they undermine the movement’s ambition to represent the Muslim “masses.”