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.

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Posted by at 08:16 | Posted in Measure 37 | 13 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Terrific analysis; I learned a lot from it. Thanks.

    • Mark Burles

      This piece was not actually a defense of U.S. policy in Iraq, though it seemed to be interpreted as such. Its not really focused on U.S. policy, except in the most general sense.

      It was intended to look at the strategies driving the militant Jihadis and how those strategies fit within larger forces in play in the Islamic world.

      If I’m arguing that Al Qaeda has lost, I am not arguing that we have won. That’s the point of the analogy ot the Soviet regime in the ’20’s. They did not attain world revolution – they had failed. Still, they had another seventy years to create all kinds of problems for the rest of the world befroe they were finally defeated.

      Similarly, the jihadis can not attain their strategic goals. Nonetheless, they will continue killing Westerners and Muslims alike in pursuit of thier fantasy for the indefinite future, and there probably isn’t anything we can do to stop that in the near future. We can manage it, and hopefully avoid another catastrophic attach on US soil, but we probably won’t be able to totally dismantle the threat posed by militant Islam.

      So I don’t intend it to be all that reassuring. The conflict with militant Islam probably isn’t ending soon (regardless of what we do in Iraq).

      The point about democracy is it is probably the best long term hope for diffusing the jihadi appeal. I don’t know that for certain, but who could?

  • Anonymous

    Wow, and to think I, as a believer in strictly limited government and personal liberty, was concerns that the administration had bitten off more than it could chew, and had become a threat to not just Muslims, but the American people. It’s a relief to know everything is completely under control after all. Now, if only somebody would just show this TOTALLY CONVINCING bit of armchair policy analysis to all those nutty insurgents in Iraq, I’m sure they would agree that resistance is futile and all our troubles there will cease, right? I nominate, for that hearts-and-minds outreach mission, all the Oregon neocon war-supporter who never served a day in the military in their lives. Any takers?

    • Anti-Anonymous

      It’s too bad that you’ve decided to argue so passionately for the personal liberties of terrorists. I think you’ve confused strictly limited government with strictly limited national security. It’s sad that you believe, despite all of history being against you now, that democracy can’t produce a more peaceful world. Perhaps you are racist enough to think that Muslims aren’t good enough to deserve a chance at having democracy. Perhaps where you have gone most sadly wrong is your belief that having a negotiation with terrorists is somehow possible. For the peoples of the Middle East, the only long term hope is for them to deal with their grievances peacefully through voting. So it’s in both our interests and theirs to pile up the dead terrorists long and high. There is no doubt that the troops serving over in Iraq (and Afghanistan) know this. Try to actually talking to some of them sometime. It’s just deranged, self-loathing neo-isolationists like yourself that seem to remain totally unaware of this fact. Guess you just bit off more than you could chew, eh?

  • Steve Plunk

    Chickenhawk arguments are weak. Some substance would be nice. If no substance there I would suggest silence.

    • Anti-Anonymous

      It’s great to see you share the same view of free speech and open debate as the terrorists!

  • Anonymous

    “Chickenhawk arguments are week.”

    Let me guess…Your’e a chickenhawk?

    • Anti-Anonymous

      Hey Rob,

      Looks we’ve got another “week” speller from our edumacation system!

      Let me guess…public edumacation!

      • Anonymous

        Yeah, publik edukashun, you got that rite.

        On the other hand, if it wasn’t for idiots like me, there’d be nobody to go off and fight in yer imperial wars, eh General Trotsky?

  • Anonymous

    So if Iraq breaks out into civil war…is that all just part of the plan?

    • Anti-Anonymous

      No, but I’m sure you’ll still be cheering for the terrorists no matter what side of the civil war they’re on!

      • JDM

        This war will be one of the most difficult tests our country has ever faced. One of the most intimidating tests our people will ever confront. That test, that mountain we must climb is that of freedom. All the while Islamic extremists and people just like ‘anti-anonymous’ are cutting our support ropes, our life lines, in an attempt to watch our people fall, our military fail, all in the attempt to just ‘get back’ at this administration. You call this war imperialistic yet that is exactly what this war is fighting against. “If no substance then I would suggest SILENCE,” your words echo those of Islamic hard liners that want anyone confronting them to SHUT UP and to just fallow their anti american ideals. You attack the other people here on this blog for making weak arguments, yet you yourself only make childish remarks, utilizing childish name calling and throwing out a continous diatribe of ,” Chickenhaws are weak” is in itself very weak. I have full confidence that our men and women in uniform will win this conflict, the American people will weather this storm, freedom loving people around the world will defeat those like Hitler, Stalin, Saddam and hopefully Kim Jong Il, no thanks to you.

  • Oregon catalyst has arrived – the liberal trolls have found it!

    Great essay and great postscript Mark – especially the point that just because they have lost we haven’t yet won. The death throes of most entities are full of violent spasms.

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