Al Qaeda: past, present, and future
The avalanche of tenth anniversary 9-11 retrospective commentary is on the way! A quick browse through the National Geographic Channel listings, for instance, reveals that they have turned this week into the 9-11 equivalent of the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. Since the media has come to refer to me on occasion as a terrorism expert (an exaggeration attributable to the fact that I teach a course on the subject) let me be so bold as to add some of my thoughts on the changing nature of Al Qaeda before the commentary reaches a crescendo.
What’s Changed Since 9-11
First, credit has to be given were credit is due. During the seven post-9-11 years of President Bush and two years of President Obama there has not been a major successful terrorist attack against American civilians. This is partly due to wise policies such as the initial intervention in Afghanistan that dismantled Bin Laden’s terrorist playground, and partly in spite of unwise actions such as the invasion of Iraq, which revived Al Qaeda’s fortunes by validating, in the eyes of many, the group’s “war against Islam” rhetoric.
Presidents only have so much power, however, and most of the real change has occurred due the efforts of hardworking, and mostly anonymous, members of the intelligence, law enforcement, homeland security, and military communities. No one has done more to keep us safer than the “nameless, faceless bureaucrats” so often criticized by the big-government populist crowd. Improved reorganization and information sharing among intelligence agencies; tighter, more effective security measures at airports, major buildings, and ports; and a military that has learned to increasingly adjust to counterinsurgency warfare are all examples of successful organizational adaptation that has occurred over the last decade.
Al Qaeda has changed and adapted as well. Ten years ago Al Qaeda was an organization shaped and operated primarily by a hierarchical “central command” led by Osama Bin Laden and his ideological sidekick (and current Al Qaeda front man), Ayman al Zawahiri. Despite the many Saudis involved in 9-11 (including Bin Laden, of course), the majority of the higher-ups at the time were Egyptian, many alumni of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad that had its roots in the assassination of former Egyptian President Sadat.
Most of these original members are dead or have been captured. The Al Qaeda of today bears no resemblance to the centralized group of terrorist masterminds of a decade ago. Especially with the death of Bin Laden, this group has limited operational or even symbolic importance anymore.
Globally, however, Al Qaeda as ideology has supplanted Al Qaeda as organization. Al Qaeda is now a brand and a business model utilized by numerous “franchises” in the greater Islamic world to promote recruitment and justify terror against civilians. This model has been emulated in Iraq, Northern Africa, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan’s tribal areas and, most recently, by the newly prominent terrorists of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.
The good news for the United States is that, with the exception of the Yemeni-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, none of these groups have directed significant attacks against U.S. civilians — something that was once the most distinguishing characteristic of Al Qaeda.
The fact that American civilians have remained largely safe from Al Qaeda is small comfort for the tens of thousands of (mostly Moslems) killed by these groups. The biggest “accomplishment” of Al Qaeda’s old guard was the justification and normalization of the mass murder of infidels and apostates, i.e. the majority of the population of the world not considered to be, as promoters of Al Qaeda ideology often label themselves, “true Muslims.”
For 1300 years, there had been no serious consideration among religious or political figures in the Islamic world that suicide bombing or the slaughter of civilians, particularly Muslim civilians, might represent acceptable jihadi practice. Suicide bombing began in 1981 with Shi’ites in Lebanon, and was adopted by Palestinian terrorists in the nineties, who used the tactic to kill hundreds of Israelis before 9-11. Bin Laden and Al Qaeda brought the practice to the world, and the lives now lost numbers in the tens of thousands. Suicide bombings killing dozens of innocents at a time have become a regular part of the news landscape that we hardly notice anymore — and that’s the biggest change since 9-11.
What hasn’t changed
In calling attention to what has changed, many commentators have suggested that the last decade has seen witnessed the rise of “homegrown terrorism” and the deterioration of America’s image in the Muslim world. I have problems with both of these accounts.
First, the threat of “homegrown terrorism” did indeed grow in the early part of the decade. This was not as much a consequence of 9-11 as it was the 2003 Iraq invasion, which became the rallying point of alienated Muslims from conservative mosques to the burgeoning internet chatroom scene. This homegrown threat manifested itself as early as 2004 in Madrid and 2005 in London, where 191 and 52 people died, respectively.
In the half decade since, despite high profile cases like the “Times Square” and “Underwear” bomber (both foreign nationals), I’ve seen no evidence that the number of plots by Moslem citizens in Western countries has increased. The dwindling presence of the U.S. in Iraq (and eventually Afghanistan) coupled with the spread of Western-ish democracy in the Middle East may actually served to undercut the idea of “jihadi-cool” among the youths of Western countries in the coming years.
That not to say there will not still be plenty of ill will against the United States. Opinion polls across the Moslem world tend to be unfavorable toward the U.S. these days, to say the least. Has the image of the United States in the Moslem world really changed so radically, though?
I can’t say I’ve seen opinion polls from a decade ago, but I don’t think we were very well-liked then either. Opinions of the United States have plunged in some countries, like Turkey, and declined only to rebound again in others, such as in Indonesia. In countries like Pakistan the “war on terror” has undoubtedly engendered bad feelings, but in countries like Jordan and Egypt the main source of antipathy is what is always has been — American support of Israel. Sadly, the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians is as moribund as ever and the U.S. continues to offer unqualified support to Israel. These factors are the most significant areas of “non-change” over the last decade.
What should change
While we’ve made strides in areas such as homeland security, intelligence, and the dismantling of Al Qaeda’s original structure, the U.S. faces new challenges in the years to come. Al Qaeda, “the ideology” still has an intense following around the world. This ideology will not die out anytime soon – but it will die out. Just as the global anarchist terrorist movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s lasted a generation before it was consigned to the dustbin of history, so too will the ideas introduced by Al Qaeda.
The first thing that needs to be reconsidered is our policy of military intervention in other countries. Given that the U.S. will be largely out of both Iraq and Afghanistan within three years, the effectiveness and role of drone strikes will receive more and more attention in the future. While effective in killing some really bad people, they also have deleterious effects.
In Pakistan, these strikes breed instability by empowering conservative Islamic political parties at the expense of the beleaguered voices in favor of human rights and democracy. The long term solution to extremism and lawlessness in Pakistan is stability and relative prosperity, and drone strikes run contrary to these goals, especially when they kill civilians. That’s not to say that drones should never be used when there is a near certain identification of a very high value target like Ayman Zawahiri, only that they need to be used with increasing caution and an understanding of the costs, even when strikes are successful.
In other areas, such as Somalia or Nigeria, drone strikes are even less appropriate. While groups in these areas might pose a potential future threat to the United States, it is more likely that their focus will remain on their local goals (Hamas, for example, might make a good point of comparison). The greater the U.S. involvement in these regions, the greater the incentive for retribution, and the greater the threat to U.S. security.
Yemen presents the clearest case for continued drone strikes. Recognizing Yemen as the closest thing to the Al Qaeda of 2001 is an important part of our future strategy. Yemen is a collapsed state, as Afghanistan was in 2001, and the Al Qaeda movement there has shown a clear intent to attack the United States. We have little choice but to continue drone strikes there, with the knowledge that they are out to attack us in any case.
Another consideration in the coming years involves the ongoing effort to win “hearts-and-minds” in the Muslim world. It would be advantageous to U.S. interests, for one, to be seen as more even-handed in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. It would also be in our interest to abstain on the upcoming vote on Palestinian statehood this month at the U.N. But due to domestic political constraints, that won’t happen, so…
The U.S. government should pursue diplomacy in other areas of the Muslim world with a “light touch.” As we leave Iraq and Afghanistan, we need to learn the lessons of the past and understand that politics in the Muslim world is complicated and factious, and we need to avoid “taking sides” in domestic issues as much as possible, unless we are backed by a broad international consensus.
The U.S. would also be served by reaching out to “peaceful” Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, even if we find some of their goals offensive (the feeling is surely mutual). Such outreach would go a long way toward conveying the message that the United States is not seeking to impose its particular vision of Western values in the region.
Historical narratives of western imperialism going back to the Crusades are, fairly or not, a major lens through which politicians and publics in the Muslim world form their opinions of the United States. Understanding this sensitivity to outside influence and interference will help us avoid the mistakes of the past — mistakes that can only serve to fan the flames of extremism and sustain the appeal of the doomed Al Qaeda death cult longer than is necessary.