For some, these small numbers suggest that bin Laden’s organization is fading away, and that the war against it is largely won. But the fact is that Al Qaeda has always been a small organization. According to the FBI, there were only 200 sworn members at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and the group has always seen itself primarily as an ideological and military vanguard seeking to influence and train other jihadist groups.
Al Qaeda’s ideology and tactics have spread to a range of militant groups in South Asia, some of which are relatively large; the Afghan Taliban alone are estimated to number at least 25,000 men. As Al Qaeda’s ideas proliferated, leaders began planning seriously to attack targets in the West. According to Spanish prosecutors, the late leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, sent a team of would-be suicide bombers to attack Barcelona’s public-transport system in January 2008. Luckily, the alleged plotters were arrested before the plan was carried out.