First is Steve Coll's brief Talk of the Town piece for last week's New Yorker, "Threats":
Next is Thomas Rid's most recent article for The Wilson Quarterly, "Cracks in the Jihad." This is a much more well-developed essay than Coll's, as you might imagine from the different format, and it expands on the same themes referenced in the passage I've cited above. Here's a highlight:
The attempted Christmas attack also put Al Qaeda’s resourcefulness on full display. In its third decade, under severe pressure, it has evolved into a jihadi version of an Internet-enabled direct-marketing corporation structured like Mary Kay, but with martyrdom in place of pink Cadillacs. Al Qaeda shifts shapes and seizes opportunities, characteristics that argue for its longevity. It will be able to wreak havoc periodically for as long as it can recruit suicide bombers and well-educated talent, as it has done consistently.
Yet Al Qaeda is also weakening. Osama bin Laden sought to lead the vanguard of a spreading revolution. Instead, he and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are hunkered down, presumably along the Afghan-Pakistani border, surrounded by only about two hundred hard-core followers. Their adherents in Yemen and Africa number no more than a few thousand. Al Qaeda in Iraq is a tiny fragment of its former self. Bin Laden’s relations with the Taliban seem brittle. Unlike Hezbollah, Al Qaeda provides no social services and thus has built no political movement. Unlike Hamas, its bloody nihilism has attracted no states that are willing to defend its legitimacy. In a world of at least one and a half billion Muslims, this does not a revolution, or even a vanguard, make.
Rid explores the local/global split and briefly touches on takfir (there's really a LOT in common with Bobby's thesis that I mentioned yesterday); this obviously overlaps significantly with the ideas I sort of inelegantly explored in the post about Yemen, too.
In the years since late 2001, when U.S. and coalition forces toppled the Taliban regime and all but destroyed Al Qaeda’s core organization in Afghanistan, the bin Laden brand has been bleeding popularity across the Muslim world. The global jihad, as a result, has been torn by mounting internal tensions. Today, the holy war is set to slip into three distinct ideological and organizational niches. The U.S. surge in Afghanistan, whether successful or not, is likely to affect this development only marginally.
The first niche is occupied by local Islamist insurgencies, fueled by grievances against “apostate” regimes that are authoritarian, corrupt, or backed by “infidel” outside powers (or any combination of the three). Filling the second niche is terrorism-cum–organized crime, most visible in Afghanistan and Indonesia but also seen in Europe, fueled by narcotics, extortion, and other ordinary illicit activities. In the final niche are people who barely qualify as a group: young second- and third-generation Muslims in the diaspora who are engaged in a more amateurish but persistent holy war, fueled by their own complex personal discontents. Al Qaeda’s challenge is to encompass the jihadis who drift to the criminal and eccentric fringe while keeping alive its appeal to the Muslim mainstream and a rhetoric of high aspiration and promise.
The most visible divide separates the local and global jihadis. Historically, Islamist groups tended to bud locally, and assumed a global outlook only later, if they did so at all. All the groups that have been affiliated with Al Qaeda either predate the birth of the global jihad in the early 1990s or grew later out of local causes and concerns, only subsequently attaching the bin Laden logo. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, for example, started out in 1998 as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, an offshoot of another militant group that had roots in Algeria’s vicious civil war during the early 1990s. Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba, the force allegedly behind the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, that killed more than 170 people, was formed in the 1990s to fight for a united Kashmir under Pakistani rule. In Somalia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other countries, the Al Qaeda brand has been attractive to groups born out of local concerns.
By joining Al Qaeda and stepping up violence, local insurgents have long risked placing themselves on the target lists of governments and law enforcement organizations. More recently, however, they have run what may be an even more consequential risk, that of removing themselves from the social mainstream and losing popular support...
So in short, go read!