The Surge That Could Defeat al Qaeda

Is al Qaeda and its ideology dead, dormant, or ascendant? While the United States debates the question, it should work on discrediting jihadists.


Assumptions about al Qaeda have a bad tendency to turn out wrong. Many U.S. security analysts underestimated the group before the September 11 attacks, and then, not surprisingly, perhaps overestimated it after 9/11. In recent years, inside and outside the U.S. government, there was a new reigning assumption about al Qaeda — that the appeal of its Salafi-jihadi ideology would decline as its ability to conduct terrorist attacks was eroded by intelligence, law enforcement, and military operations. Amid what appeared to be a building backlash against bin Laden’s outfit among Muslims worldwide — seen most vividly in the Sunni rebellion in Iraq and the denunciation of al Qaeda by high-profile former Salafist ideologues such as Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, aka Dr. Fadl — the assumption that al Qaeda was growing both operationally weak and ideologically moribund seemed sound.

It now seems that this assumption may be significantly wrong. In a recent closed session of international intelligence and counterterrorism officials, a very high-ranking U.S. intelligence officer provided a simple, counterintuitive observation. Bin Laden may now be making infrequent filmed statements instead of planning and executing attacks, this official said, but those statements and the ideology behind them have grown in importance. The U.S. intelligence community, we were told, is starting to see this ideological threat as a greater danger to U.S. interests than actual al Qaeda-trained killers.

If true, this thesis renders moot a rather unseemly debate that continues to rage within the counterterrorism community. On one side is Marc Sageman, a scholar at the New York City Police Department and a former CIA psychiatrist, and on the other, Bruce Hoffman, a professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. These two, and their followers, came to theoretical blows last year over their assessments of the state of al Qaeda. Sageman argues that the phenomenon of "leaderless jihad" — wherein individuals and groups become radicalized and commit terrorism with no al Qaeda guidance at all — has supplanted the relevance of the group itself. Hoffman argues, instead, that bin Laden and company still pose the gravest of threats, that the operational core of al Qaeda retains high levels of command and control, and that grass-roots terrorism, or leaderless jihad, is but a myth.

It now seems that both were mistaken. Open-source information, along with the U.S. intelligence community’s recent assessment, paints a different picture: It is one of al Qaeda as operationally degraded but ideologically ascendant, with "al Qaeda Central" continuing to exercise a significant degree of control over the shaping and dissemination of its Salafi-jihadi message and with the coordinated acts of violence against civilians that is does manage to carry out continuing to play an important role. Al Qaeda does not possess the organizational strength it had eight or 10 years ago, but al Qaeda’s ideology is not waning among the young and extreme. On the contrary, its "propaganda by the deed" continues to inspire new recruits and terrorist attacks, particularly outside the Arab world.

Recent nongovernmental data support this view of al Qaeda. In 2008, Salafi terrorism of the sort that al Qaeda inspires and directs reared its head thousands of miles from Iraq and Israel, in places such as the Philippines, Russia, Somalia, and Pakistan. According to figures reported by one U.S. think tank, the annual number of Islamist terrorist attacks tripled between 2004 and 2008, to nearly 600 incidents. Indeed, if attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Israel are removed from the total, the trend over the same four-year period is even more startling, showing a quadrupling of Salafi-inspired attacks. And if you go back even further — back before 9/11, the Bush presidency, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — the picture is shocking: a tenfold increase in annual terrorist attacks over the past decade.

It also appears that al Qaeda’s ideology is even winning converts among Muslims who do not become foot soldiers or cannon fodder in the extremist cause. According to polling data from Western and Arab sources, bin Laden’s version of reality is the perceived wisdom of the vast majority in many Islamic countries. It may seem absurd to someone sitting in Washington when bin Laden says the West is "at war with Islam," but in Pakistan nearly three-quarters of the population thinks that this is the truth driving U.S. counterterrorism operations. Eighty-five percent thinks so in Egypt. As one Pakistani official told me: "We’ve had enough of all the Americans in Pakistan."

The huge increase in terrorist violence and a broader sympathy for its aims has occurred under al Qaeda’s unique ideological banner. In the recent attacks that brought pandemonium to Mumbai, though the terrorists also went after Hindus, it is clear by their active search for U.S. and British citizens and their targeting of a Jewish community center that they were dutifully following the call to jihad against the Jews and Crusaders as declared by Osama bin Laden in his 1996 fatwa. But this obvious ideological connection is less interesting than the ways in which the religious ideology of Salafi jihad has influenced other parts of the world where Islamist violence was previously unknown. The best example of how this virulent strain of political violence infected and then transmogrified a community is of course Chechnya — and to a lesser extent Dagestan, another Caucasian region of Russia.

The Islam of the Caucasus was always different, a brand of Sufism that arrived to the region only in the 18th century and which would be tempered by totalitarianism. Despite the 1991 Dudayev coup and then Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov’s decision to embrace Islam as a state ideology, this version of Islam was never close historically to the extreme version of Wahhabi-inspired terrorism. Yet it became such, as testified by the bodies of the 156 children of Beslan. A distinctly political fight for freedom, built on the cult of the mujahedeen, fell victim to al Qaeda’s philosophy of Salafi jihad.

A similar ideological injection has occurred and is occurring in a completely different part of the world. But in this case we understand it even less, despite its demonstrating the trend perfectly. Again, a Sufi-based culture is concerned, but this time in Africa. With a Muslim faith based upon the mysticism of the nomadic wadad, or holy man, the Islam of Somalia has survived many trials, including all out regional war and the international Islamic revivalist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. However, it too has followed the Caucasus model. The Islamic Courts Union and the related terrorist group, al-Shabab — built and formerly headed by Aden Hashi Ayro, who received his training from al Qaeda — have managed to succeed where famine and civil war failed. The ideology of jihad as terrorism and not the guerrilla warfare of the mujahedeen has so permeated Somali culture that the International Crisis Group has reported that many Somalis today understand the United States’ war on terrorism as simply an "assault on Islam." The recent arrests in Minnesota and Melbourne, Australia, of Somali terrorist cells and al-Shabab’s official declaration that it is now an al Qaeda affiliate signal that the United States’ involvement with Somalia is far from over and that the officers of its newest combatant command, Africom, will likely be very busy in the future. Not only will Africom’s forces be fighting piracy and trying to stabilize a country that really does not exist institutionally, but they will be attempting with other U.S. federal agencies to ensure that Somalia’s diaspora does not pose an imminent threat to domestic U.S. interests.

What does all this mean for the conflict formerly known as the Global War on Terror? It means, to begin with, that the "surge" in Afghanistan is exactly the opposite of what the United States should do to defeat al Qaeda. U.S. boots on the ground will do little to defeat al Qaeda’s ideology. Attempts to reach out to fence sitters and those who can be won over to the side fighting al Qaeda are important, but speeches such as the one recently made by U.S. President Barack Obama in Cairo are simply not enough. The United States needs to go on the ideological offensive. In the culture of Islam, the question of a leader’s authenticity is paramount. Bin Laden and those who follow his Salafi worldview must be delegitimized. After the debacle that was strategic communications under the last administration, Washington must formulate a marginalization policy. A lead agency must be empowered by the White House, and it must coordinate a whole-of-government message that focuses primarily on the vast number of Muslim victims of terrorism, of al Qaeda’s brand of terrorism. The United States should focus less on concepts such as democracy and more upon the bloody reality that is the result of al Qaeda’s ideology. The United States will then soon discover that it is far easier to make al Qaeda and bin Laden look illegitimate and truly evil than it is to make everyone love America.

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