Foreign Policy has an excellent background piece on Al-Qaida – what it is and is not, the relative importance (or lack of it) of Osama bin Laden and whether we're making any headway in containing the "lunatic fringe" Islamist mayhem it advocates (link via The Belgravia Dispatch).
Author Jason Burke, chief reporter for The Observer (London) poses a number of assertions and gives clear and illuminating replies. For example:
“Al Qaeda Is a Global Terrorist Organization”
No. It is less an organization than an ideology. … Today, the structure that was built in Afghanistan has been destroyed, and bin Laden and his associates have scattered or been arrested or killed. There is no longer a central hub for Islamic militancy. But the al-Qaida worldview, or 'al Qaidaism,' is growing stronger every day. This radical internationalist ideology—sustained by anti-Western, anti-Zionist, and anti-Semitic rhetoric—has adherents among many individuals and groups, few of whom are currently linked in any substantial way to bin Laden or those around him. They merely follow his precepts, models, and methods. They act in the style of al-Qaida, but they are only part of al Qaida in the very loosest sense. That's why Israeli intelligence services now prefer the term “jihadi international” instead of “al-Qaida.”
And, sadly, this:
“The West Is Winning the War on Terror”
Unfortunately, no. The military component of the war on terrorism has had some significant success. A high proportion of those who associated with bin Laden between 1996 and 2001 are now either dead or in prison. … However, if countries are to win the war on terror, they must eradicate enemies without creating new ones. … If Western countries are to succeed, they must marry the hard component of military force to the soft component of cultural appeal. … The objective of Western countries is to eliminate the threat of terror, or at least to manage it in a way that does not seriously impinge on the daily lives of its citizens. Bin Laden's aim is to radicalize and mobilize. He is closer to achieving his goals than the West is to deterring him.
You can read it all here.