For Now, Our War on al Qaeda Is Over

On the Seventh Anniversary of September 11: Time to Declare the original al-Qaeda Defeated
By Juan Cole / September 11, 2008

The original al-Qaeda is defeated.

It is a dangerous thing for an analyst to say, because obviously radical Muslim extremists may at some point set off some more bombs and then everyone will point fingers and say how wrong I was.

So let me be very clear that I do not mean that radical Muslim extremism has ceased to exist or that there will never be another bombing at their hands.

I mean the original al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda as a historical, concrete movement centered on Usama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, with the mujahideen who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s at their core. Al-Qaeda, the 55th Brigade of the Army of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan under the Taliban. That al-Qaeda. The 5,000 fighters and operatives or whatever number they amounted to.

That original al-Qaeda has been defeated.

Usamah Bin Laden has not released an original videotape since about four years ago. There was that disaster with the cgi black beard. There was the old footage spliced in by al-Sahab. But nothing new on videotape. I conclude that Bin Laden, if he is alive, is so injured or disfigured that his appearance on videotape would only discourage any followers he has left.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s number two man, is alive and vigorous and oppressively talkative. But he has played wolf so many times with no follow-through that he cannot even get airtime on cable news anymore, except at Aljazeera, and even there they excerpt a few minutes from a long tape.

Marc Sageman in his ‘Understanding Terror Networks’ estimates that there are less than a thousand Muslim terrorists who could and would do harm to the United States. That is, the original al-Qaeda was dangerous because it was an international terror organization dedicated to stalking the US and pulling the plug on its economy. It had one big success in that regard, by exploiting a small set of vulnerabilities in airline safety procedures. But after that, getting up a really significant operation has been beyond them so far.

In the region, Usamah Bin Laden wanted to overthrow the royal family of Saudi Arabia, and install an al-Qaeda-led, Taliban-like ’emirate’ in that country. He wanted to expel US troops from Prince Sultan Air Base, which he considered a form of American military occupation of Saudi Arabia and thus of two of the holiest cities in Islam, Mecca and Medina.

Ayman al-Zawahiri wanted to overthrow the Egyptian government. His Egyptian Islamic Jihad was building cells and capacity for a violent attack on the Egyptian president, just as constituent elements of al-Qaeda had assassinated Anwar El Sadat in 1981.

But the Saudi government has not been overthrown. The US troops are out of Saudi Arabia, so talk has died down about the occupation of the two holy cities, which never made much ssnse to begin with (there were few or no foreign troops in Hijaz, the west coast along the Red Sea, where Mecca and Medina are located). The Saudi royal family is flush with tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues. It may fall to a popular revolution as with Iran, in the future, but any such instability is unlikely to be led by al-Qaeda. Only 10% of Saudis now say they think well of that organization, and they are the ones who do not think it carried out September 11.

Ayman al-Zawahiri’s organization, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, has been devastated inside Egypt. Most of its cadres were killed or imprisoned. It had had an alliance,since 1980 or so, with the Gama’a al-Islamiyyah of the blind sheikh, Omar Abdel Rahman. The leadership of the Gama’a has broken with the sheikh, and many of the leaders have renounced violence as a political path. They have written and published 20 or so ‘recantations’ that interpret the Qur’an as commanding peaceful activitsm and denouncing violence.

That is, one of the major unexpected outcomes of Sept. 11 has been to turn one of the major Egyptian fundamentalist organizations into a peace movement.

Everywhere you look, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad is weaker or has dwindled into insignificance.

So if the original al-Qaeda has been defeated, what are the prospects of violent Muslim radicalism?

Terrorist groups are active in four major contexts among Muslims:

1) There are tiny one-off cells (a group of seven acquaintances, e.g., unconnected to any larger organization) among some Muslim communities of Western Europe. They have no real political prospects or import, although they can be briefly disruptive. They are expressions of discontent by a handful of obsessive personalities with Western foreign policy toward the Muslim world. There are also small one-off cells in some Muslim countries, such as Morocco, but so far they are not politically important. These cells are nurtured by the internet and might have dissipated in its absence.

2) There are larger organizations or networks in some Middle Eastern countries that deploy terrorist tactics for political purposes. The radical Muslim movement of Algeria is an example. Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia made a push 2003-2006 but was largely repressed.

3) In small territories under what is locally perceived as direct foreign military occupation, organized national liberation movements have sometimes deployed Muslim radicalism as an ideology of resistance and resorted to terrorist tactics, as with Hamas in Gaza, and the Kashmiri and Chechen jihadi groups. They are leant greater significance and popular support by the national liberation project, but they are operating among relatively small populations (Gaza is 1.5 million) and are taking much larger occupiers, so that they can be crushed or marginalized over time.

One implication of Sageman’s work is that these groups centered on national liberation seldom pose a terrorist threat to the United States. Hamas, for instance, pledged no attack on the US. Sageman found no Kashmiris among the international terrorist groups– they are focused on their domestic project of liberation.

4) Virtually in a class by themselves are the Islamic State of Iraq in the Sunni Arab areas of Iraq, and the Taliban, whether the Tehrik-i Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan or the neo-Taliban of southern Afghanistan. The Islamic State of Iraq and similar organizations are called by Washington ‘al-Qaeda in Iraq or AQI– but the groups themselves generally do not call themselves this since the killing of Abu Musab Zarqawi. They have been attrited in Iraq by Shiite death squads, by American military operations and special death squads, and by the opposition of tribal and other local political forces, such as the 1920 Revolution Brigades, which allied from summer 2006 with the US. They operated on a much bigger scale than the groups in 3) and had the potential to control big swathes of territory before their defeat. The radical Sunnis’ strategy in Iraq, of targetting Shiites and provoking an ethnic civil war, doomed them, since it left them a small minority toward which the majority was deeply hostile. They were forestalled by their own tactics from taking up the mantle of Iraqi nationalism, and so remained terrorist groups without larger political import.

While the Taliban are broadly unpopular in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, they do have some claim on sentiments of sub-nationalism among the Pushtun ethnic group and so have managed to become political movements and not just terrorist groups (though they continue to deploy terrorism as one tool for accomplishing their political goals). The neo-Taliban in Afghanistan seem to be near to taking Ghazni, which is not so far from the capital, Kabul.

Although the US is worried about the Arab volunteers who take refuge among the resurgent Taliban, they are a tiny element and cannot easily launch international terrorist operations from FATA. NATO is making a significant error if it does not recognize that the neo-Taliban is more than just a small international terrorist organization. Rather, it has elements of a national liberation organization (in northwest Pakistan it is the lentil-eating Punjabis who are coded as the ‘foreign’ occupiers).

While counter-terrorism activities can be usefully pursued in these three areas, it is clear that the local perception of foreign occupation is part of the problem, and a long-term occupation is likely to exacerbate the violence rather than reduce it.

Here is some support for that thesis. Aljazeera English reports on the Afghan reaction to Bush’s announcement that he will send more US troops to Afghanistan. Those interviewed are convinced it won’t matter or that it will make the security situation worse, and insist that more Afghan troops are the answer.

It seems clear to me that a combination of sticks and carrots in dealing with the tribes plus strengthening the capacity and efficiency of the local military forces is the only path likely to succeed in the long run here. In any case the Taliban themselves do not pose the threat of international terrorism, though they may give safe harbor to individuals from abroad that do. The focus should be on tracking down and circumscribing the activities of those individuals. Convincing the Pushtun population generally to put up with 70,000 US and NATO troops and with air strikes that kill civilian villagers is a fool’s errand.

As for the relative decline of Sunni radicalism in Iraq, it comes in part from a political failure. That al-Qaeda’s inability to develop a pan-Islamic discourse and strategy helped doom it is clear from the remarks by Ayman al-Zawahiri released earlier this week regarding Iran.

“Do you have any advice or any words to refute the argument of the theoreticians who claim that 9/11 was an internal action carried out by the Israeli Government?

Al-Zawahiri: My answer: It is enough to reply to this suspicion by saying that it is not based on any evidence. The first side that released this suspicion was Al-Manar Television, which is affiliated with the Lebanese Hizballah. It claimed that it cited a certain website. The objective behind this lie is clear. The objective is to deny that the Sunnis have heroes who harm America as no one has harmed it throughout its history. This lie was then circulated by the Iranian news media and they continued to repeat it until today for the same objective. Perhaps, they guided Al-Manar Television to begin these lies. Iran’s objective is clear. It is to cover its collusion with America in invading the homelands of Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I gave examples of this collusion in my recent interview with Al-Sahab under the title “reading in the events.” This lie was then repeated by some of the psychologically defeated ones in our Islamic world, whose minds, which were distorted by Western exaggeration, refuse to believe that some Muslims can cause this harm to America. These poor minds have thus far not been able to understand why America is defeated in Afghanistan and Iraq in front of the simple mujahidin, and, in fact, why America has failed to arrest Mulla Mohammad Omar and Shaykh Usama Bin Ladin, may God watch over them, after more than six years of fierce war, during which it used all means of technology, which caused us a headache about its legendary capabilities. Furthermore, why the power of the mujahidin is growing against it day by day despite this world war that is being launched against them?”

No more eloquent testament to the defeat of the original al-Qaeda could be found than the pitiful inability of Zawahiri to name any genuine accomplishments in recent times save the ability of the top leadership to elude capture!

The Bush administration over-reacted to September 11, misunderstanding it as the action of a traditional state rather than of a small asymmetrical terrorist group. Its occupation of Iraq lengthened al-Qaeda’s shelf life. But poor strategy by the Sunni radicals themselvesf brought the full wrath of Iran, the Iraqi Shiites, Jordanian intelligence, and the United States military down on their heads.

“Al-Qaeda in Iraq” is not a reason for the US to extend its occupation of that country, but is rather an epiphenomenon created by the occupation and the political mistakes it made.

My hypothesis is that the relatively high incidence of terrorism in the Muslim world in recent times is associated with two major factors. One is the final tying up of the loose ends of the 19th and early 20th century legacy of Western colonialism in the region (Algeria, Palestine, Ksahmir and Chechnya all have that context). The other is the large scale movement from rural, peasant life to an alienating urban environment. The transition from agrarian to urban society has been attended with great violence and disruptions in other culture regions as well– consider Germany in the first halfof the twentieth century, or Russia, or China. When the contradictions of the colonial legacy are resolved, and when the urban and demographic transitions are sufficiently advanced, the incidence of terrorism in the region will likely decline. There may be further violence, but it will be rooted in future crises such as the impending water shortage and very high fuel and food prices.

For now, our war is over. Time to come home, and train and fund locals to do the clean-up work.

Source / Informed Comment

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