More than two decades after its founding, al-Qaeda has reached "old age" and its upcoming fourth generation will be "scattered, disjointed and weak", according to researchers who specialize in studying the group.
The decline in the organisation's effectiveness is a result of several factors, including the Arab Spring and the ongoing haemorrhaging in the ranks among of its older leaders, they said.
"Al-Qaeda's structure is in a declining stage because the current crop of leaders is not as effective as the previous leaders were," said Dr. Saeed al-Jamhi, head of the al-Jamhi Centre for Studies and Research.
The terrorist group, which is currently in its third generation, has deviated from the founding guidelines established by the first two generations, al-Jahmi said, adding that the new breed has become committed to violent actions that are causing the organisation to lose sources of support the first generation counted on.
Al-Jamhi said that documents found inside Osama bin Laden's home in Abbottabad, Pakistan reveal that the former leader did not want the group's affiliates distracted by fighting internal enemies, such as local governments and military and civilian targets. Instead, he wanted them to focus on targeting external enemies, knowing that attacks on local targets would diminish support and lead to alienation from communities.
"This shows that there is a mutiny against the [al-Qaeda] leaders, and it is a sign of weakness," he said.
Arab Spring demonstrations have had a major role in weakening al-Qaeda ideologically because they provided proof that political opposition groups do not need to resort to violence, al-Jamhi said.
"The first impression that emerged from the Arab Spring revolutions was that, contrary to what al-Qaeda says, peaceful [demonstrations] can serve as a means of change and violence is no longer efficacious in bringing about change," he said.
"More than two decades later, al-Qaeda has yet to achieve anything while the bare-chested youth of the Arab Spring have toppled regimes and installed democratic ones in their place," al-Jamhi said. "This debunks al-Qaeda's theory that violence is the only means of change and eliminates any justification for its existence."
The group has also lost a number of prominent leaders, which has in turn spurred confusion within al-Qaeda's ranks, al-Jamhi said.
"The fourth generation will suffer from these imbalances and will be scattered, disjointed and weak," he said.
The first generation, which included bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, consisted of those who fought in Afghanistan in the early 1980s and were focused on fighting an external enemy.
"They had more fervour, won public sympathy and abided more closely to the directives that their leaders issued," al-Jamhi said.
However, the subsequent generation was "less disciplined," al-Jamhi explained. "Bin Laden was surprised to learn that his second generation followers were attacking oil pipelines in Saudi Arabia and confused the near enemy with the external one".
"The [second] generation started after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in the early 1990s and was less dynamic and less active than the first generation," he said."It failed to confront [the organisation's enemies] because of the international campaign against terrorism and because they were not in close contact with their leaders."
The third generation, according to al-Jamhi, came into existence around 2000.
"It inherited all the bad attributes from the second generation and plunged into battles with the local enemy," he said. "The organisation was stronger in one place and weaker in another", noting that between 2003 and 2005 it was weak in Yemen but strong in Saudi Arabia.
"The third generation tried to attack the external enemy and carry out some operations like shipping parcel bombs, but they failed," al-Jamhi said.
However, the group began fighting a media war, utilising the Internet as a means to attract supporters and successfully recruited many new members.
Al-Jamhi said that the notion of generational divides is somewhat artificial because there are first-generation leaders, like al-Zawahiri, who are still active alongside more recent members.
Meanwhile, Dr. Ahmed al-Daghashi, a researcher who studies Islamist groups, said, "The Arab revolts severed the ideological connection between al-Qaeda's first three generations and its fourth one, if it ever comes to pass."
He said the emergence of a fourth generation depends on whether the Arab Spring demonstrators achieve their objectives and whether the peaceful protest movements eliminate the political, economic, social and ideological rationales for al-Qaeda's existence.
Al-Daghashi, who recently published a book on al-Qaeda's pedagogical approach, said that if a fourth generation emerges after the Arab Spring era it will be weak and disjointed, particularly on the ideological level.
According to al-Daghashi, al-Qaeda's first generation members had reached a conclusion that all attempts at political, social, educational, intellectual and ideological reform were no more than "temporary narcotic" solutions to the issue of separation between Islam and the state. Thus, they called for an immediate confrontation in the form of armed violence against state institutions.
"The second generation was known for its use of disguises when they conducted operations, and its focus was on using an organisation-oriented approach in recruiting," he said.