Al Qaeda is failing: A view from a local expert

I want to give you a timely update on Al Qaeda and why they are failing. I know that you have all probably read and heard a lot about that group since 9/11, but I think some work has come out in the last couple years that is helpful to understanding their behavior and action. I’ll start by addressing the principles and beliefs that form the basis of their strategy and define their objectives. I believe their strategy has already failed and have probably peaked in terms of the potency of their capabilities and message. Lastly, I believe why the ultimate solution to the Jihadi problem requires, ironically, an increase in Islam’s role in politics in the Muslim world.

Jihadis exist as a result of and draw strength from the fact that the Muslim world has been in the toilet for almost two hundred years and Muslim political leaders have utterly failed to do anything about it. Their goals are fairly straightforward; to return the Islamic world to its former glory through the restoration of the Caliphate, which will unite all Muslims under a single government and true Islamic law.

Jihadi’s strategies for achieving this are deeply informed by their interpretations of Mohammad’s experience in establishing Islam 1400 years ago. In fact, they believe that the Prophet established a virtual template for successful Jihad that is every bit as relevant today as it was in the 7th century. Through a very literal, if selective, reading of three particular sources of Islamic thought and tradition, they have developed a broad body of strategies that closely mirror the tactics and strategies used by the Prophet himself. They refer to these strategies collectively as “the Method of Mohammad.”

Probably the best way to think about it is as a handbook to Global Jihad in Three Easy Steps. The first step recalls Mohammad’s early time in Mecca, where he gathered a core group, or vanguard, of believers and called for Arabs to repent their sinful ways and turn to God.

For its modern analogy, think of Bin Laden following the Afghan war, but before he was kicked out of Saudi Arabia. The seminal event during this period was his harsh criticism of the Saudi government for letting US troops on its soil to defend the kingdom against Saddam. When his cry was ignored, he determined that the kingdom no longer adhered to the true faith and began planning his departure.

Step two is the Hegira — the journey away from Mecca and the place of unbelievers, toward Medina, a place more accepting and open to the true message of Islam. This tracks with Bin Laden’s journey from Saudi Arabia, to Sudan, and finally Afghanistan. During this period Al Qaeda removed itself from the core countries of the Middle East, and began to really solidify its organization and mission.

Step three is the Medina stage. Its here where an Islamic state is created and the violent Jihad is launched. In this case, the Taliban’s Afghanistan fills the role of Medina. It was from this true Islamic state that Bin Laden declared war on the United States. It was there that Al Qaeda trained their recruits, organized their networks, and laid the groundwork for future attacks.

One area where Al Qaeda differs from other Jihadi groups is in who they target. Where many Jihadis go after local Muslim governments, Al Qaeda is very focused on who they refer to as the “Greater Unbelief,” who, of course, is us.

Their reasoning is pretty straightforward; as bad as the apostate regimes in Muslim homelands are, they are really just puppets and extensions of U.S. power. They have no actual power or legitimacy on their own. Once we are vanquished, the “Lesser Unbelief” in local Muslim countries can be handled will little difficulty, and will probably collapse of their own accord.

Al Qaeda’s final plan for victory is comprised of two key elements. First, they believed that the U.S. could be defeated through the use of extreme violence in terror attacks. I think you are probably familiar this line of reasoning; we’re soft — we can’t take a hit. Kill a few Americans, show the bodies on CNN and you unleash the American “inner coward.” Obviously, this provides the rationale behind the 9/11 attacks. They thought that they could give us “crack,” and we’d lose our nerve and withdrawal our forces and influence from Muslim lands.

Second, they believed their act of extreme violence would incite the larger Muslim world to rise up overthrow their apostate rulers and welcome Jihadis back to Islam’s Holy Land, just as Muhammad was able to ultimately re-enter Mecca without a fight.

These two things have not happened.

What does this mean?

It means quite simply, that Al Qaeda has failed. The fundamental assumptions underlying their strategy, regarding what was required to destroy their enemy as well what would inspire their own countrymen, turned out to be wrong.

They’ve also taken a serious hit to their own capabilities. Without their Afghan sanctuary, Al Qaeda’s ability to design and execute truly ambitious acts of terror has been significantly diminished. Not eliminated, but diminished nonetheless.

Al Qaeda’s credibility in the Middle East is also not what it once was. The United States is more engaged in the Middle East now than ever before as a direct result of 9/11. In the U.S. occupied Iraq, the only thing Al Qaeda’s contingent there seems to be able to do is kill innocent Muslims. The Taliban has been overthrown, and Al Qaeda has not demonstrated that it is capable of another attack approaching the scale of 9/11. Bin Laden himself said that people like to bet on the strong horse. Well, Al Qaeda is beginning to look a bit lame, even in the Muslim world.

I don’t want to downplay the damage Al Qaeda has caused or the potential damage it may cause in the future. But Al Qaeda’s goal is to restore the Caliphate. This hasn’t happened and is no closer to happening today than it was before 9/11.

So where are we now?

If Al Qaeda has lost, they don’t seem to be quite ready to hoist the white flag. I think an instructive historic analogy is the Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks came to power and assumed that they merely had to wait a few years for the Revolution to sweep through war weary Europe. That was their plan — they never intended to create socialism in a single state, particularly not one so backward as Russia, but the Revolution never came. They had failed, but it took another 70 years before they finally realized it.

Al Qaeda has reached the point where the fantasy which underpins its strategy and reason for existence has been exposed. Unfortunately they have no intention of disappearing any time soon. Al Qaeda will continue to operate, because as an organization, it’s a hard one to kill. It will also continue to feed off of the ambient hatred of the United States and profound dissatisfaction with the political status quo in the Muslim world for the indefinite future. But, it is has been reduced to an organization of fanatics for whom the use of violence is no longer attached to any viable objective.

So what can do we do about it?

In the short term, we need to keep doing what we’ve been doing, most of which is really been pretty basic, if intense, counter-intelligence, domestic security related stuff. It’s slow going, but I think we’ve are seeing success in penetrating these networks, disrupting their operations, and capturing or killing their leaders. The problem is that there are limits to what this sort of activity can achieve. It can reduce the risk of future attacks, but it can’t really address the source of the Jihadis support and strength.

At the strategic level, to really get at the root of Jihadi appeal and power, the abysmal political, social and economic conditions in the Middle East need to improve, and this means we’ll need to see more democratic and competent governments there. This sounds pretty straightforward. It gets more complicated when you realize that any true expansion of democracy in the Middle East will only come with a dramatic increase in the role of Islam in those governments.

The societies of the Middle East remain very traditional and religious ones. For most of the people there Islam remains central to their lives and to how they interpret the world around them. What’s more, Islam has been inextricably linked to the language and politics of dissent and reform. Hamas in Palestine is a good example of this. Its success in the recent elections there has as much or more to do with the incredible incompetence and corruption of Arafat’s Fatah Party as it does with Hamas’ own extreme position with regard to Israel. The point is that there is no way to move beyond the political status quo in the Middle East without granting Islam a prominent role in the process.

There are real risks in this approach. Islamic oriented governments probably will not be friendly toward us. They will say and do things that will offend our values and at times threaten our interests.

And things won’t work out well in all cases. Again turning to the situation in Palestine, if Hamas does not abandon violence, its role in the Palestinian government will be unacceptable and untenable. Governments don’t get a free pass just because they were elected democratically.

But at the same time I think we can count on the very act of participating in a democratic process gradually wearing down the radical edge of these organizations. We’ve seen this already in the behavior of Islamic parties in places like Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq. We may be in the first stages of this process with Hamas.

There is no getting around the fact that this is going to a very long process that will probably extend over decades. At times, it will undoubtedly look like it is failing badly. The point is that, regardless of how difficult or unpleasant it gets for us, this is a risk that we must run if the Muslim world is to finally gain some stability and prosperity. More to the point and to conclude this article, it is the only way to finally put to rest the danger posed by Al Qaeda and organizations like them.

For over ten years Mark Burles has been researching and making policy recommendations to the U.S. Air Force and the Federal Government through various organizatiosn including the Rand Corporation and the Gartner Group.