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Alex Spillius: Tide has turned and al-Qa'ida is on the back foot

In the battle against al-Qa'ida, we may be taking our shoes off in airports for some time. There may never be a moment when we can be sure that someone somewhere isn't plotting to blow up our planes and trains. If there is, it may be half a decade or more away.

But are we at a point where we can collectively pause and quietly dare to say that we are winning and that al-Qa'ida's demise is a matter of time? There is good reason to say yes.

For Osama bin Laden was not the only terrorist leader to be "taken down" or "brought to justice" -- as American counter-terrorist officials like to say -- in the past few weeks.

Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the mastermind of the network's first devastating attacks, on the US east African embassies in 1998, was shot at an army checkpoint in Somalia on June 12. Ilyas Kashmiri, a senior operative in Pakistan, is believed to have been killed by a drone in South Waziristan.

The death of Bin Laden has allowed the Obama administration to quietly boast of previous successes against his cadre in Pakistan's tribal areas.

We now know that unmanned flying killing machines have over the past 18 months eliminated 20 out of the top 30 al-Qa'ida members identified by US intelligence agencies.

The information found in Bin Laden's compound in Pakistan pointed to an organisation with a leadership in disarray.

Across the border in Afghanistan, no more than "50 to 75 al-Qa'ida types" remain and are preoccupied with the local struggle against US and Afghan troops, according to a senior US official.

Some terrorist experts estimate that the upper echelon of al-Qa'ida's original leadership in the Pakistani badlands now numbers only a few dozen. The organisation, whose name means the base, doesn't have one any more and has lost its launch pad for global jihad.

Bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is regarded as "a bit of loser", according to a source close to the US administration.

Obama officials are trying hard not to gloat and would be wrong to do so in public. But in private, some say they have never been in a stronger position against al-Qa'ida.

No attack on Europe has come to fruition since the London transport bombings in 2005. There has been no successful attack on the United States since 9/11 -- although there have been close calls in both places.

"Basically, we are winning dramatically," says Marc Sageman, a terrorism specialist and researcher. "We have got to the point where the real danger is from lone wolves."

US intelligence agencies have identified the Yemen-based al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as the greatest threat to Western interests. It has shown the sort of creativity that has often left our finest spooks and detectives a step behind.

AQAP's menace derives in part from the fact that it hatches its plots relatively quickly, making them harder to track.

Al-Qa'ida has been the victim of good -- and at times fortunate -- police work, smart intelligence and deadly missiles. Obama may have won the Nobel Peace prize, but he has quadrupled the use of drones.

BUT the group's greatest wounds have been self-inflicted. Most of its victims since it attacked the US have been Muslims -- the very people it is supposedly appealing to.

The rot set in when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi turned the anti-American insurgency in Iraq into a civil war with the Shia majority, bombing with a frequency and indiscrimination that horrified the region.

The Arab Spring may yet provide terrorists with opportunities to stir up trouble. But the stronger message is that young Muslims are inspired en masse by the promise of free speech and representative democracy -- not by restoring the Caliphate with hotel bombings. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent