Amid an uneasy anniversary of the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a daring U.S. special forces raid, there's a temptation to consider the war won.
Al-Qaeda's infamous leader is dead; the cunning mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, suicide hijackings, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, goes on trial this week in Guantanamo; while missile-firing Predator drones have grimly decimated al-Qaeda's commanders in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
More than a decade later, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, $1.2-trillion in spent bullion, 6,000-plus lost American lives – and perhaps 50 times that many other lives – the "war on terror" is, at least, a defunct term, banned by President Barack Obama's administration as it shifted rhetorical focus in the struggle against violent, extremist Islam.
But the broader conflict remains unresolved and may have become far more complicated.
No significant terrorist strike has hit an American target since 2001. The Madrid and London bombings of 2004 and 2005 were the last major attacks on Western cities. Al-Qaeda has been battered and decapitated. Yet the threat still looms.
"It's wishful thinking to say al-Qaeda is on the brink of defeat," warns Rand analyst Seth Jones. Yet even in the Muslim world, support for al-Qaeda is way down. Only in Egypt does its approval rating top 20 per cent, according to a recent Pew Research poll. In Pakistan, where bin Laden was killed in a violation of Pakistani sovereignty and anti-U.S. fervor runs high, barely 13 per cent hold a positive view of al-Qaeda, and in much of the Arab world support is mired in single digits.
The violent fringes of radical Islam seem to have lost traction among even disenfranchised and repressed Muslims. At the same time, political Islam is emerging as a key force in the change sweeping aside repressive regimes in the Middle East.
As the terror threat and fear of another spectacular attack like the catastrophic destruction of New York's twin towers diminishes, the nature of the struggle against radical, repressive Islam remains unfinished and the West's role is increasingly unclear.
The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan is winding down. The coalition of Western nations that sent combat troops – including Canada – is falling apart as nations head for the exits. The dream of transforming Afghanistan from a haven for terrorists run by Taliban brutes into a modern democracy where girls go to school in an oasis of central Asian stability has been eclipsed by harsher realities.
The war's aims have been reduced to propping up the Karzai regime, talking to the Taliban and hoping Afghanistan doesn't slide back into a narco-state run by warlords or return to a Taliban fiefdom.
Neighbouring Pakistan, once the supposedly key ally in former president George W. Bush "war on terror" may pose an even greater threat than Afghanistan should it collapse.
Meanwhile, as popular uprisings topple repressive regime across the Arab world, the inherent contradictions in Western policy are being exposed. Backing dictators and monarchs as long as they repressed radical Islamists, kept cold peace with Israel and the oil flowing, was the pragmatic, successful, strategic policy for decades.
In its place is a rapidly evolving effort to stay on the right side of history. So Washington jettisoned longtime loyal ally, Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and then sent warplanes to back the Libyan rebels who ousted and killed Col. Moammar Gadhafi. Still backing pro-democracy forces isn't a one-size-fits-all shift in policy. Mr. Obama's support for the Saudi royal family remains unflinching while the unfolding violence in Syria seems to have hamstrung the West.
Al-Qaeda's new leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, continues to issue calls to arms, urging jihadists to seize the moment. That rallying cry seems, so far, to have had little resonance among the tens of millions of Muslims seeking – and in some nations tasting – freedom across the Arab world. But there has been a spate of suicide bombings – hallmarks of extremist jihadists – in Syria.
If moderate, democratic, freely-elected governments – likely including Islamists – fail to deliver in Egypt and elsewhere, the unfulfilled expectations of tens of millions may provide new recruiting grounds for the extremists.
"Al-Qaeda franchises are still a major factor," former White House counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke told ABC. "Groups calling themselves al-Qaeda or claiming affiliation … have large, armed formations in Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Nigeria, and in the Magreb and the Sahel regions of Africa. They are conducting military-styled attacks in some countries and waves of bombings in others. They are participating in the 'Arab Spring' fighting in Libya and Syria."