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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.

But when we view the complex struggle against terrorism only as a conventional war, we will lose and they will win.

In his June speech to the Muslim world, President Barack Obama, then a candidate, embraced this more sophisticated sense of counterterrorism. Through public diplomacy, he was accomplishing a great deal to advance the ideas that America stands for among Muslims, and his efforts had some proven success as various opinion surveys have shown in the Muslim world.

But the recent debate over the proposed surge of troops in Afghanistan suggests a strong current within his administration and the Pentagon that wants to regress back to the conventional military approach and what is ultimately a doomed strategy against the Taliban and the Al Qaeda movement for which the now toppled Taliban government provided a base in Afghanistan.

The decline and creeping desperation of Al Qaeda may also be an inevitable historical truth among fundamentalist movements. It is a natural law of extremism that it will always inevitably implode, according to two new books on the subject.

They come from very different quarters. One emerges from the National War College and the other from Harvard University’s Divinity School. But they end up in the same place: Al Qaeda is following the trend of all violent, religious extremist movements and in the process of flaming out.

In a recently published book titled “How Terrorism Ends,” author Audrey Kurth Cronin, a professor at the War College in Washington, assesses the patterns of the trajectory of violent extremist groups from the Provisional Irish Republican Army to Peru’s Shining Path. She recently told the New York Times: “I think Al Qaeda is in the process of imploding. This is not necessarily the end, but the trends are in a good direction.”

The respected religious scholar and Harvard University professor emeritus Harvey Cox comes to a similar conclusion in his latest book, “The Future of Faith.” Cox has been on the money in predicting trends in religion throughout a distinguished career that spans a half century, and this book feels as prophetic in its predictions as it is sweeping in its scholarship. To make these conclusions, Cox draws on decades of work on the subject of religious fundamentalisms in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. And it is a book that is ultimately hopeful by asserting that faith will survive where dogma will grow rigid and disappear.

Cox taught a course at Harvard in recent years called “Fundamentalisms,” and I had the honor of serving as both a student and an occasional guest lecturer in his class. I would relate to the class street stories about Hamas and Hezbollah and Christian Zionists and the Jewish settler movement from years of reporting in the Middle East. And then Cox would frame those stories in historical and theological context for the class, and me.

So when I recently returned from Afghanistan, Cox and I had lunch and discussed the recent trends and once again he put all the street reporting on the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan in context.

“What you were witnessing, I believe, is a shift, the beginning of a decline,” Cox said, referring to the Taliban movement on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and the Al Qaeda elements that metastasized around it.

If the history of fundamentalism he chronicles so well teaches us about the present, Cox believes: “It is a decline that is inevitable.”