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Analysis: Al Qaeda on its way out?

Al Qaeda, like all extremist movements, will inevitably implode. Now is the beginning of its decline.

Najibullah Zazi, center, is escorted by U.S. Marshals after a helicopter landing at a New York Police Department facility in Brooklyn, N.Y., Sept. 25, 2009. Zazi, who was arrested on Sept. 19, is charged with plotting bomb attacks in the United States. (New York Police Department/Reuters)

NEW YORK — The image of Najibullah Zazi, a 24-year-old Afghan-born bus driver from Denver and now a terror suspect, embodies the complex truths of where we are right now in the struggle against terrorism.

Zazi, who pleaded not guilty in federal court here Tuesday on charges of conspiring to set off a bomb in the U.S., represents the age-old axiom of counterterrorism that law enforcement officials have to be lucky every time and terrorists only need to be lucky once to carry out a mass killing of innocent civilians.

Thank God the FBI agents who arrested Zazi kept him from being lucky. As a result, the case reveals the level of intense investigative work that is going on every day by federal agents who keep us safe. Very often that work occurs far from view without any of us knowing how close the terror plots came to fruition.

But Zazi, with his long beard and his rag-tag appearance and the surveillance videos of him going around collecting beauty supplies allegedly for the chemicals needed to build small bombs, also embodies the current, desperate reality of Al Qaeda and those inspired by its apocalyptic vision of a holy war with the infidel, America.

Al Qaeda is very much on the run and wounded, albeit not yet dead.

Its decline has come as Muslims around the world and the governments that represent them increasingly see the movement for what it is, a cult of hatred and death that will just as easily target a Muslim as an American.

GlobalPost reported on that groundtruth this summer in our series “Life, Death and the Taliban,” when we documented the shift in mood in Pakistan as the country turned against the Pakistani Taliban and supported a government offensive in the Swat Valley. That offensive, which displaced more than 2 million civilians, has nevertheless effectively served to fracture the Taliban in Pakistan and sent affiliated Al Qaeda elements out of their caves and put them on the run. Consider the Pew Global Attitudes Project which has tracked opinion in the Muslim world from 2002 to 2009. According to Pew, those who believe suicide bombings are “often or sometimes justified” have dramatically declined from alarmingly high percentages in the first years after Sept. 11, 2001. In Pakistan, it has dropped from 33 percent to 5 percent. In Jordan, from 43 percent to 12. And in Indonesia, from 26 percent to 13.

That represents a significant shift in the Muslim world that Americans should acknowledge and capitalize upon by continuing to recognize that ultimately the battle against Al Qaeda is not a conventional war, but one of ideas — a relentless struggle against what is, at the end of the day, a criminal enterprise. Effective surgical strikes and disruptive tactics will be necessary.

The CIA and the U.S. military’s Special Operations unit have worked very effectively with allies to kill key terrorist leaders, as was made evident earlier this month with precise and successful strikes on top leadership in Somalia, Yemen and Indonesia.