November 17, 1997, marked the beginning of the end for Egyptian terrorist group Gamaa Islamiah. Through the 1990s it had led a violent campaign against Hosni Mubarak's Government, attempting to assassinate the Egyptian President in mid-1995 and massacring 30 Greek tourists in April 1996. The aim of the latter was to cripple the tourism industry on which Egypt's economy is based, plunging the government into economic crisis and precipitating a revolution.
Gamaa correctly recognised that popular resentment of the Egyptian regime was widespread, yet it still failed miserably. On that November day, it massacred 58 (mostly Swiss) tourists at the Temple of Hatshepsut, Luxor. It claimed responsibility for the attack immediately, only to be greeted with public outrage. Backpedalling rapidly, it tried to blame the Egyptian Government for the atrocity. In the coming months it renounced its tactic of targeting tourists.
The head of Gamaa was a man called Ayman al-Zawahiri. By early 1998, Gamaa was no more and al-Zawahiri subjected himself to Osama bin Laden's leadership at al-Qaida.
And it seems that history is being repeated. According to a report just published by Maha Azzam, associate fellow of the Middle East program at Chatham House in London, support for al-Qaida in the Muslim world is diminishing for similar reasons.
Like Gamaa Islamiah before it, al-Qaida trades on popular Muslim anger. While the former's focus was domestic, al-Qaida's is global, so it emphasises Muslim resentment of the Middle Eastern conflict, the effects of US foreign policy more broadly in the region and longstanding Western support for repressive regimes in Muslim lands. In this way, al-Qaida presents itself as a revolutionary vanguard for the resurrection of Muslim honour. As its spokesman wrote after September11: "There is no power or nobility (in us) if we do not take vengeance for our brothers in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and every place."
Yet in the past three years al-Qaida has given the lie to its own rhetoric. Most notably this has been in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, where four terrorist attacks have killed more than 100 people. Suicide bombers killed 43 people and injured 100 in Morocco in 2003. The bombings have returned to tourist sites in Egypt.
In Afghanistan, three terrorist attacks in two years (including one on the weekend) have killed about 60. This year, terrorists struck twice in six weeks in Karachi, Pakistan. Meanwhile, al-Qaida's affiliates in Iraq contribute significantly to the murder of hundreds of innocent Iraqis, particularly Shi'ites, weekly. Until his death in June, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was notorious for it.
Such conduct creates an enormous credibility crisis for al-Qaida. Its claims of acting in Muslims' interests disintegrate rapidly on the realisation that it has no qualms about killing them. Al-Qaida has made it plain that it considered the Muslims killed on September 11 to be disbelievers and therefore legitimate targets. Gamaa before it had attempted to justify killing Muslims it regarded as apostates, and their children. Thus does the true grotesqueness of such groups expose itself.
The Muslim world inevitably recognises that terrorist organisations are its enemies, too.
This, it seems, is the inescapable logic of terrorist groups. They recognise that they must trade on genuine grievances, but the depravity of their actions confesses immediately to profound moral defeat. Eventually they must collapse under the weight of their own hypocrisy.
This equation provides a significant opportunity in the battle of ideas at the heart of the war on terror. As terrorist hypocrisy is increasingly revealed, a rhetorical vacuum results. The good news, according to Chatham House, is that, increasingly, traditional Islamic scholars are asserting themselves in this space, with an emphatic message that Muslims must reject terrorism as heresy. Against the backdrop of al-Qaida's crumbling credibility, this message is making significant inroads.
As terrorism follows its natural course to failure, deep Muslim grievances remain and cannot be ignored. It is likely Muslims will search for alternative, probably political, modes of expression. Here, Western governments have a chance to make rhetorical ground. The failure in Iraq has done significant damage and strengthened al-Qaida operationally. But if the West can find a creative way of dealing with the Muslim disillusionment on which it trades, the rhetorical dismantling of al-Qaida just may complete itself.