End of the Road
Al Qaeda’s Fall
September 1, 2011
Sep 1, 2011
18 Min read time
News of Osama bin Laden’s killing by U.S. special forces at a compound near the Pakistani capital of Islamabad has sunk in. News of al Qaeda’s demise, on the other hand, has not.
News of Osama bin Laden’s killing by U.S. special forces at a compound near the Pakistani capital of Islamabad has sunk in. News of al Qaeda’s demise, on the other hand, has not.
While there is ongoing analysis of the compound in Abbottabad, what it contained, and whether the evidence suggests bin Laden’s active participation in al Qaeda’s operations up to the moment of his death, there remains little debate in the media about his organization and its viability. Though opinions in some quarters have begun to shift, commentators and analysts readily accept the narrative advanced by many officials and so-called terrorism experts, who argue that al Qaeda remains the West’s greatest threat.
These officials and experts are wrong. Their account, premised on the notion that millions in the Arab world are heeding al Qaeda’s call for jihad not only against the West but against corrupt Arab regimes, is unconvincing. The Arab revolutions of 2011 left bin Laden behind. As the revolutions crescendoed, al Qaeda was notably absent; the millions of protesters were not uttering jihadist slogans or endorsing violent tactics.
What this revealed once and for all is that al Qaeda offers no economic blueprint, no political horizon, and no vision for the future. The revolutions have reinforced what many of us already knew: al Qaeda’s core ideology is incompatible with wider Arab aspirations.
Not only is al Qaeda philosophically out of step with the vast majority of Arabs, it is organizationally moribund. Today it comprises roving bands limited to the mountains and valleys of Pakistani tribal areas along the Afghan border, where bin Laden was assumed to be hiding; remote areas in Yemen along the Saudi border; and the wastes of the Sahara and Maghreb. Its actions show a consistent pattern of ineptitude. Its leadership increasingly relies on inexperienced freelancers or unskilled recruits.
Al Qaeda peaked with the 9/11 attacks. As soon as they were over, the decline began. After bin Laden, his cohort, and the Taliban were expelled from Afghanistan, al Qaeda was effectively decapitated. The leadership was on the run or captured. Dispersed haphazardly into various countries, most of which were unwelcoming, bin Laden’s men were rounded up by vigilant local security services competing to show Americans how cooperative they were.
From Yemen to Syria, the United Arab Emirates to Pakistan, the hunt for al Qaeda has produced scores of significant arrests. Iran—which in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was on friendlier terms with the United States than it is now—arrested or extradited hundreds of bin Laden’s men who had fled there, including senior military commanders and members of his family. Pakistani authorities offered valuable and tangible assistance to the United States, helping it arrest more than 400 of bin Laden’s top lieutenants and operatives, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah. Yemen rounded up jihadis and imprisoned them en masse. President Ali Abdullah Saleh flew to Washington and showed his support by allowing the CIA to kill Abu Ali al Harithi, then leader of al Qaeda in Yemen. Harithi and five other suspects were shot down by an unmanned Predator while driving in the desert east of the capital Sana’a in November 2002.
There is increasing evidence that just two years after 9/11 bin Laden and his right-hand man Ayman al Zawahiri were vulnerable, constantly on the move between rural locations in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and fully occupied with avoiding capture. Western intelligence authorities say that between 2001 and 2003 they had reliable information on bin Laden’s movements, though the information was not recent enough to act upon. Still, there was a window of opportunity: al Qaeda was in disequilibrium, its leaders were on the run, and there was genuine goodwill toward the United States among governments in a position to help take down bin Laden’s group.
• • •
That changed with the invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration’s war and occupation allowed al Qaeda to regroup, reorganize itself militarily, and decentralize its decision-making process, spawning offshoots that would carry its ideology and tactics to new regions. The expansion of the war on terrorism to Iraq, which lies in the heart of Arabian Islam, enraged millions of Arabs and Muslims, thereby prolonging al Qaeda’s life. The occupation inspired a rallying cry for jihad against America, a foreign invader, and its “coalition of the willing.”
In my travels between 2003 and 2006, I met hundreds of Arab youth from Libya, Morocco, Algeria, Yemen, Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere, many of whom said they were desperately attempting to go to Iraq to join the jihad there. While most were not members of al Qaeda, they seemed disposed to its message of defending the umma—the Muslim world—against foreign occupation. Despite the extraordinary pressure the United States exerted on Iraq’s neighbors to seal their borders, thousands managed to get in. A limited clash with a declining al Qaeda was thus turned into a greater struggle with the world of Islam, precisely as bin Laden and Zawahiri had hoped. Al Qaeda re-calibrated its message to focus on Iraq, and the recruits rolled in. The fledgling organization gained credibility in Muslims’ eyes, a chance to be perceived as an armed vanguard of the umma.
As this year’s Arab revolutions crescendoed, al Qaeda was notably absent.
Within a few months of the start of the occupation, a small band of Afghan Arab fighters led by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born high school dropout who had previously fallen out with Zawahiri and bin Laden over tactics and strategy, set up in Iraq a lethal organization called al-Tawhid wal-Jihad. At the height of its power in 2004–2006, al-Tawhid wal-Jihad exceeded al Qaeda in numbers, strength, and brutality. Zarqawi fielded one of the largest arsenals of suicide bombers in history and deployed it indiscriminately. His goal was to kill as many Iraqis, particularly Shia, as possible, almost single-handedly triggering an all-out sectarian war between the two leading communities, Sunni and Shia.
In October 2004 Zarqawi announced that he was formally changing the name of his group to “al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers,” a reference to the Tigris and Euphrates, and declared his allegiance to bin Laden. Two months later, in an audiotape broadcast by Al Jazeera, bin Laden endorsed Zarqawi as his deputy and anointed him the emir of al Qaeda in Iraq, praising his “gallant operations” against the Americans.
But embracing Zarqawi proved costly. Despite repeated written requests by al Qaeda’s senior leadership to strike only at Americans, Zarqawi sent wave after wave of suicide bombers at Shia Iraqis. Nothing—not bin Laden, not Zawahiri, not the Sunni Arabs, a segment of which initially provided Zarqawi shelter and support—could stand in the way of his murderous crusade. When Sunni tribal leaders challenged his tactics and his attempt to impose a Taliban-like regime on their neighborhoods, he cracked down viciously, ordering the assassination of Sunni politicians who dared participate in the nascent political order. By 2005 the hundreds of bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings had turned the vast majority of Iraqi and Muslim opinion against al Qaeda in Iraq and al Qaeda in general.
Instead of broadening his base among Iraqis, Zarqawi alienated his most important allies: the Sunni-dominated insurgency, who eventually turned against al Qaeda. Under these circumstances, the United States appeared a potential ally, and many Sunni insurgents who previously fought the occupier joined the U.S.-sponsored Awakening Councils and expelled Zarqawi’s men from their areas. When in June 2006 American warplanes killed Zarqawi with two 500-pound bombs, al Qaeda in Iraq was almost a spent force.
Bin Laden and Zawahiri had lost more than an overzealous ally; they had lost any hope of obtaining lasting Muslim support. Al Qaeda’s historic opportunity to integrate itself with an aggrieved Sunni community that initially had tolerated its presence was gone, along with a chance to make inroads into neighboring Arab countries. Bin Laden could not distance himself from Zarqawi, and, for the first time ever, offered a public apology. He asked for tolerance and forgiveness.
• • •
Its reputation irreparably tarnished by the carnage in Iraq, al Qaeda has for years faced a serious shortage of skilled recruits in the Muslim heartland. Indeed, the Muslim world is actively opposed to its operations. In Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Indonesia, and elsewhere, most of the intelligence about al Qaeda suspects comes not from surveillance by intelligence services but from relatives and friends, a testament to the changing political and social landscape, as well as public disillusionment with bin Laden’s men.
Since 2007, public-opinion polls conducted in Muslim countries show a plurality of citizens deeply concerned about terrorism and the image of Islam abroad. A growing majority of Muslims view al Qaeda negatively and endorse measures to limit its activities in their societies. Between 2001 and 2007, Gallup conducted tens of thousands of hour-long, face-to-face interviews with residents of more than 35 predominantly Muslim countries. The pollsters found that, contrary to the prevailing perception in the West that al Qaeda enjoys wide support in the Muslim world, 93 percent of respondents condemned, on religious and humanitarian grounds, the killing of noncombatants.
Terror Free Tomorrow, a nonprofit group seeking to establish the reasons people support or oppose extremism, found that support for al Qaeda, the Taliban, bin Laden, and other militant Islamist groups dropped by half between August 2007 and January 2008. Where 33 percent of Pakistanis supported al Qaeda and 38 percent supported the Taliban in August 2007, by the following January the numbers were 18 percent and 19 percent respectively. When asked if they would vote for an al Qaeda representative in government, just 1 percent of Pakistanis polled answered in the affirmative. The Taliban scored 3 percent.
Even bin Laden’s mentor praised those ‘brave hearts’ and ‘courageous minds’ that have defected from al Qaeda.
According to Pew polls, support for suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilian targets as justifiable means of protecting Muslims has also declined. The shift has been dramatic all over the Muslim world. In Jordan in May 2005, 57 percent of the population viewed suicide attacks as often or sometimes justified. By July 2007 that figure had fallen to 23 percent. In Indonesia, the largest majority-Muslim nation, 77 percent of respondents to the 2007 survey agreed that terrorist attacks are “never justified,” up from 41 percent support in March 2004. In Pakistan and Bangladesh at least 70 percent of respondents fell in the “never justified” category.
A 2009 Pew Global Attitudes survey showed the trend continuing. In Indonesia 85 percent of those surveyed said suicide bombing was “rarely/never justified.” Ninety percent of Pakistanis and 82 percent of Jordanians agreed.
The minority that says suicide bombing is justified under exceptional circumstances tends to refer to the Palestine-Israel conflict and not to al Qaeda’s transnational jihad. Indeed, only 31 percent of Palestinians, according to the 2009 survey, believe that suicide bombing is rarely or never justified. Consider, though, that a 2006 survey from the Program on International Attitudes found only 46 percent of Americans think that “bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are “never justified,” while 24 percent believe these attacks are “often or sometimes justified.”
Yet even these polls do not reflect the full gravity of al Qaeda’s crisis and isolation. Testimony by jihadis returning from al Qaeda’s “havens” in Pakistan’s tribal areas paint a picture of an organization in complete disarray. These volunteers say they were made to pay for their own equipment and weapons, given desultory training, then patronized and ignored.
Al Qaeda also faces a revolt from within. High-ranking figures have blamed bin Laden directly for the turmoil engulfing the Muslim world. The prominent Saudi preacher and scholar Salman al Awdah, a mentor of bin Laden, reproached him on his Web site and in comments on MBC, a Middle Eastern television network. “How many people were forced to flee their homes,” Awdah asked, “and how much blood was shed in the name of al Qaeda?”
The reaction of his former pupil is not known, but the angry denunciation of Awdah by bin Laden’s supporters left no doubt that the comments stung. The significance of this admonition can only be appreciated in the context of Awdah’s position: he is an influential Salafi preacher with a large following in Saudi Arabia and abroad. In the 1990s the Saudi regime imprisoned him, along with other leading clerics, for criticizing the kingdom’s relationship with the United States, particularly the stationing of troops there after the 1991 Gulf War.
Awdah’s critique stresses the moral failure of al Qaeda and symbolizes a rejection by some of the pivotal figures of revolutionary Islam. It is a theological reproach: “You are responsible—brother Osama—for spreading takfiri ideology [excommunication of Muslims] and fostering a culture of suicide bombings that has caused bloodshed and suffering and brought ruin to entire Muslim communities and families,” Awdah said. “Is Islam only about guns and war? Have your means become the ends themselves?”
Never before had bin Laden’s legitimacy been subject to such direct, withering censure by a respected Salafi scholar whose credibility as a radical cleric and defender of persecuted Muslims worldwide is unassailable. Adding insult to injury, Awdah praised those “brave hearts” and “courageous minds” that have defected from al Qaeda and divorced themselves from its terrorism. “Many of your brethren in Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere have come to see the end of the road for al Qaeda’s ideology,” he states. “They now realize how destructive and dangerous it is.”
Knowing the debilitating damage that the loss of Muslim public support has exacted on his organization, Zawahiri recently attempted to distance al Qaeda from the shedding of Muslim blood. In a largely overlooked statement marking the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Zawahiri urged Muslims to embrace jihad but avoid indiscriminate slaughter: “We disown any operation which a jihadi group carries out in which it doesn’t show concern for the safety of the Muslims,” he said in an audio message.
But the effect of the theological critiques may be too much to overcome. Not just ordinary Muslims, but also fellow jihadis can see al Qaeda’s weakness. The best al Qaeda can hope for is that a few disillusioned and radicalized young Muslims living or attending school in the West, such as the failed Christmas Day bomber or the Times Square plotter, reach their bunkers and get the explosives training to carry out an attack back home. That is now the extent of al Qaeda’s strategic reach.
• • •
That would seem to be the end of a long road. Beginning in the late 1970s, the first wave of jihadis targeted the near enemy—secular Arab governments—and fought prolonged and costly battles in Egypt and Algeria. By the mid-1990s it was over. Pro-Western Arab authoritarians had defeated the militant Islamists, killing, capturing, and expelling most of them. Picking up where the first generation left off, the second wave shifted focus to the far enemy—the United States and its Western allies—in a desperate effort to gain Muslim public support. By 2003 that strategy was in tatters. With the bloodshed in Iraq, transnational jihad, the raison d’être of al Qaeda, has become not a common cause but a civil war.
At the height of its power in the late 1990s, al Qaeda marshaled 3,000–4,000 armed fighters. Today its ranks have dwindled to around 300, if not fewer. According to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, there are at most 50–100 al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. Factions subscribing to al Qaeda’s ideology and tactics exist in Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, the Maghreb, Somalia, and elsewhere, but they are both liabilities and assets, and more local than transnational. Most victims are Muslim civilians. The material links and connections between local branches and al Qaeda central are tenuous at best.
Al Qaeda could only obtain a nuclear device if it built one, but it lacks the financial and technical capacity.
Only Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has shown any determination to plot attacks within U.S. borders. In addition to the foiled ink-bomb plot, AQAP co-opted and armed a self-radicalized freelancer—the Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab
—allowing bin Laden to claim responsibility for his aborted attempt. Senior officials of the Obama administration have also accused the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistani Taliban) of joining forces with al Qaeda—some of whose senior leaders it may be hiding—and of facilitating, directing, and probably financing the failed car bombing in Times Square.
Local factions give a false impression that al Qaeda possesses the reach and capability to wage a global war. In Yemen, Somalia, and the Maghreb, these factions seem to have given the organization a new life, yet they are pitted in a fierce local struggle for survival against the near enemy and are unable to coordinate their actions with the parent organization. One al Qaeda field lieutenant, in a message intercepted by U.S. intelligence before the raid on bin Laden’s compound, pleaded with bin Laden to come to the group’s rescue. Bin Laden chose hiding over organizational survival.
Even a small number of fighters could be dangerous if they possessed a nuclear weapon. But the only conceivable scenario by which al Qaeda could obtain a nuclear device is if it built one for itself, and it lacks both the financial and technical capacity. John Mueller, a political scientist who has written extensively about al Qaeda’s possible pursuit of a nuclear weapon, notes that even if al Qaeda somehow obtained the materials needed to construct a bomb, it would face at least twenty significant technical obstacles in the process of building and deploying one, obstacles that challenge even a country such as Iran.
Yet many terrorism experts belittle the debilitating crisis of legitimacy Qaeda faces, as well as the substantial erosion of Muslim support for transnational jihad. Perhaps this owes something to recent, though unsuccessful, attempts to smuggle bombs into the West. But militants whom I recently interviewed—particularly repentant jihadis—know they are at a crossroads.
• • •
The war with al Qaeda is over. It is time to shift to a containment strategy to deal with the remnants of the group and its scattered partners. Any such strategy must involve the empowerment of Muslim societies and the exercise of judicious restraint in the use of force. Western leaders must level with their citizens: there is no absolute security, and the security of the West is organically linked to that of the rest of humanity. People must know that there are limits to the effectiveness of force in international affairs. Terrorism cannot be eradicated with unmanned air attacks or even massive military interventions, both of which are, in any case, costly.
As for how to deal with recent terrorist plots and homegrown radicalization, there is an urgent need to expedite the withdrawal of Western, particularly American, boots from Muslim territories. For Muslims, the presence of tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops in their homeland remains a constant and painful reminder of the European colonial legacy of domination and subjugation. Neither Iraqis nor Afghans view the U.S. military presence as benign and disinterested, nor designed to bring them security, peace, and democracy. Rather, they see a foreign occupation, an intrusive, humiliating violation. Most of the recent bombing plots were blowback against American military tactics and campaigns in Muslim countries. The U.S. government’s own National Intelligence Estimate on “Trends in Global Terrorism” reports that the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq militarized Muslim opinion, shaped a new generation of jihadis, and generated hundreds of additional terrorist attacks and tens of thousands of civilian casualties. Today the conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and, to a lesser extent, Somalia have replaced the Iraq occupation as a major source of radicalization, including that of homegrown terrorists.
Even if the United States withdraws its troops from Iraq and Afghanistan in the next few years, as President Obama has pledged, the U.S. military footprint in the greater Middle East would still be substantial. At the very moment Obama announced “the end of our combat mission in Iraq,” the Pentagon dug deeper in the Middle East, expanding and upgrading military bases and other facilities in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. This formidable, long-term military presence in the countries surrounding Iraq and Iran is likely to inflame anti-American sentiment.
Threats do exist in Yemen and Pakistan, and the United States, together with the international community, can and should assist those countries in rebuilding their institutions and addressing the threats. But the United States must resist the temptation to turn the struggle into a war between al Qaeda and the West. Neither Iraqi nor Yemeni al Qaeda factions can survive a direct confrontation with their own societies and governments. They are well aware that such a confrontation would trigger public backlash and ultimately doom them. Only taking up the anti-Western mantle can save them, and it behooves the United States and its allies not to give them a chance.
The critical factor in determining the outcome of the contest between al Qaeda operators and local governments is the degree of legitimacy the latter possess in the eyes of their Muslim populations. Legitimacy requires the establishment of representative and responsive governments and open political systems where grievances can be publicly aired. Without this, pro-Western Muslim regimes are still likely to win most battles against terrorists simply by force, but there will always be a small, disgruntled constituency that will support terrorists and extremists.
Tyranny, dismal social conditions, and the absence of hope provide the fuel that powers radical, absolutist ideologies in the Muslim world. It is not enough to focus on the violent ideology of al Qaeda without devoting sufficient attention to the social conditions that gave rise to it. Only if the Arab revolutions manage to fill the gap of legitimate political authority will al Qaeda finally be allowed to die.
While we have you...
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
September 01, 2011
18 Min read time