I don't know what kind of contacts the failed airplane bomber did or didn't have with Al-Qaeda Central or Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and neither does anybody else who has commented since it happened. The extent of such contacts will be mildly interesting, but it surprises nobody working on CT issues that there are still people swimming in the AQ milieu who want to hit the United States, whether on their own or with support from some AQ affiliates. One of the real stories here, which has gone largely unremarked in the coverage I've seen, is that the Arab media generally couldn't care less. Today's news and opinion is dominated by Gaza -- an issue which commands far more popular outrage, anger, and politically mobilized attention than does anything to do with al-Qaeda.
In most of the Arab newspapers which I follow on a daily basis, the failed airplane plot didn't even make the front page -- or, at best, got a small and vague story. Gaza dominates the headlines, as it often does. Yemen continues to command considerable attention because of the ongoing clashes between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi movement, something which has been of far more consistent interest to the Arab public than to the American. Iran's protests are covered heavily. Most of the better papers also focus on local political issues. One of the only papers to cover the story prominently is the deeply anti-AQ Saudi paper al-Sharq al-Awsat, which leads with "passengers save America from a terrorist catastrophe." It's the same on the major pan-Arab TV stations. On the al-Jazeera webpage, the story doesn't even appear on the Arab news page, while a bland story about the airplane incident is only the sixth story on the international page (the same place it held in the broadcast news roundup; yesterday it was the third story in the news roundup, with the killing of 6 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza the lead). It does not crack the top 6 stories on the al-Arabiya website today.
The Arab media's indifference to the story speaks to a vitally important trend. Al-Qaeda's attempted acts of terrorism simply no longer carry the kind of persuasive political force with mass Arab or Muslim publics which they may have commanded in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Even as the microscopically small radicalized and mobilized base continues to plot and even to thrive in its isolated pockets, it has largely lost its ability to break out into mainstream public appeal. I doubt this would have been any different even had the plot been successful -- more attention and coverage, to be sure, but not sympathy or translation into political support. It is just too far gone to resonate with Arab or Muslim publics at this point.
The downgrading of al-Qaeda and the "War on Terror" by the Obama administration helps this trend along, even if the dynamics which produced it were largely local and internal to the Arab and Muslim worlds. The failure of the failed plot to capture even a modicum of mainstream Arab public interest speaks volumes to the robustness of this trend... though the frankly disturbing enthusiasm for the story in some quarters in the U.S. suggests that not everybody is happy to see al-Qaeda recede.
UPDATE: according to Kandahar-based Alex Strick van Lin, nobody in Kandahar or the Afghan media care either.
Al-Jazeera screen capture, December 27, 2009
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.