LONDON - Abdullah Anas, a jovial, bearded onetime Algerian imam, was a close colleague of Osama bin Laden in the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
He considered bin Laden a friend, but broke with him over the slaughter of innocents on 9/11. Today, Anas thinks al-Qaeda's grip on the minds of radical Muslim youth is finally ending.
"I think the philosophy of al-Qaeda is failing now," Anas says. He thinks no one in al-Qaeda can replicate the role played by bin Laden, whose charisma helped give his grim message global appeal.
Indeed, Anas, and other experts at a London conference on terrorism sponsored by the Thomson Reuters news agency, painted a picture of a terrorist group struggling to find its footing after its leader's death. It is also deeply challenged by the nonviolent Arab rebellions in Egypt and Tunisia, which disdained al-Qaeda's worship of suicide bombs.
No one discounts al-Qaeda's continuing capacity, or that of its regional affiliates, to inspire mayhem in the West, the Mideast - and in nuclear-armed Pakistan. But all agreed the group was no longer capable of spectacular attacks like those of 9/11, due to the deaths of key leaders and the awakening of the world to the terrorist threat. The group now has to turn to discontented individuals, like the would-be Times Square bomber.
But the message of violent jihad that bin Laden promoted so powerfully has lost much of its luster. Arab attitudes toward al-Qaeda's violence were already shifting before the killing of bin Laden (as borne out by polls). The organization was stained by bombings of civilians in Iraq, Jordan, and Pakistan.
The Arab Spring has changed attitudes even more dramatically. "What has happened in the Arab world," says Anas, "is completely different from [the methods] al-Qaeda tried to spread."
Equally important, bin Laden's demise creates a leadership crisis in al-Qaeda. "No one can be equal to him for his charisma, his history," says his old friend Anas. "Osama brought credibility from [his role in] the war against the Soviets."
Noman Benotman, former head of a Libyan militant group, who also rejected al-Qaeda after 9/11, says none of the likely successors have the qualities that enabled him to build a global organization. "From 1998, [bin Laden] was acting like the Khomenei of Sunni Muslims," he says, referring to the Iranian ayatollah who led the radical Shiite revolution in Tehran.
The leading contenders to replace bin Laden are Egyptians, including al-Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Yet the choice of an Egyptian would alienate the crucial Gulf Arab base of al-Qaeda, says Benotman, especially those religious Saudis who support global jihad. Zawahiri's intolerant personality, Benotman adds, would not attract a wide following. "He is the opposite of Osama bin Laden, who was very tolerant [of followers] and never punished people."
In this new era, Zawahiri, or any new leader, "needs to come up with a political strategy beyond giving people a chance to die," says the former Libyan jihadi.
Zawahiri realizes that, and yesterday he made the latest of several statements endorsing the Arab revolutions. He wants to establish a base in Egypt, believing he can build on inevitable discontent when the post-revolutionary government fails to meet popular hopes.
But the secular heroes of the Egyptian revolt totally reject al-Qaeda, as does the Muslim Brotherhood, the best-organized Islamist force in Egypt, but one that espouses nonviolence.
One can already see al-Qaeda fumbling to find a new modus operandi. Example: In Yemen, one group of local al-Qaeda members have reportedly changed their name to Ansar al-Sharia ("Supporters of Islamic Law," a title hard for locals to disagree with). They have started delivering services, and hoisted a white flag, rather than al-Qaeda's black flag, apparently to avoid being linked with suicide bombers.
Perhaps they recognize that the region has tired of the breed of young jihadis bin Laden fostered who have no interest in creating a better state, but who want only to be martyred. We are entering a new era where al-Qaeda's cult of death will have to compete for alienated young Muslim minds against more positive models of change.
Yet there is a postscript to this hopeful message. One of the main stages for continued al-Qaeda carnage is likely to be Pakistan, where bin Laden was killed. Virulent Pakistani Taliban groups allied with al-Qaeda and hoping for Afghanistan's collapse will keep trying to undermine the Pakistani military and state to get hold of its nukes.
So it was ironic to hear the former militant Abdullah Anas make a plea for NATO troops not to leave Afghanistan before Afghan leaders can reach a political settlement with the Taliban. He is now facilitating Afghan mediation efforts. He says, "I won't be happy to see NATO leave before we solve the political problem."
I've been skeptical about odds for Afghan political talks, but they could put a final nail in al-Qaeda's coffin. Talking to bin Laden's former friend, one could imagine a new era where suicide bombers no longer wreak havoc, an era where young Arab and South Asian Muslims have reason for hope.