Remembering September 11
Sep 12, 2008 | AIJAC staff
September 12, 2008
Number 09/08 #04
Today’s Update features three pieces that assess the monumental effort since September 11, 2001 – principally shouldered by the United States under the stewardship of President George W. Bush – to eliminate the Islamist terror threat.
First up, military historian Victor Davis Hanson chronicles the struggle over the last seven years to fight the Islamist terror threat as well as counter Western apologists who blamed the events of 9/11 on United States foreign policy. He demolishes the accusation that the war on terror is an effort by the US to attack Muslims and Islam, noting how America helped Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia and Afghanistan over the last 30 years, and asserts that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are legitimate, and legal, and that President Bush has successfully prevented another 9/11. For this important assessment on what has really been happening and why since 9/11, CLICK HERE.
Next, Matthew Levitt and Michael Jacobson of ‘The Washington Institute’ offer a précis of the progress made since 9/11 on countering the terror threat to the US and how al-Qaeda has also adapted to US tactics. Levitt and Jacobson write that the Bush Administration has attempted to overhaul the machinery of government in the last seven years to fight an all out war against Islamist terror in the face of vested interests in the US Congress and existing agencies. To read this compelling account of the US government’s efforts over the last seven years, CLICK HERE.
The final article is from Hassan Mneimneh at the American Enterprise Institute who suggests that al-Qaeda’s structure, character and strategy are important factors in its inability over the last seven years to ignite a global jihad. However, Mneimneh warns that al-Qaeda’s next generation of leaders might be able to successfully carry out more localised terrorist acts. For the full analysis, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Dr. Kim R. Holmes of the Heritage Foundation offering some suggestions on what the next US President needs to do in the war on terror.
- A former Syrian information minister accuses US intelligence agencies of orchestrating the 9/11 attacks as a pretext for pre-planned invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
- Some recently released videotapes provide a behind the scenes look at Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
- The lull provided by the Hamas-Israel ceasefire in Gaza is enabling Palestinian militant groups there to train new fighters.
- Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has claimed that the Middle East will only achieve peace when Israel no longer exists.
- David Schenker reveals that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent visit to Libya was facilitated by the two countries agreeing to a mutual compensation fund. Schenker says a dangerous precedent has been set because the fund equates US victims of Libyan terrorism as being the same as Libyans who died as a result of legitimate US military action in the name of self defence.
- The US Treasury Department has widened the range of sanctions on Iran following reports that it is violating UN Security Council resolutions banning the sale of arms to Sudan.
- An Austrian court has upset the country’s justice ministry, security services and the Jewish community by unfreezing a bank account of the Palestinian Abu Nidal terrorist group.
- Saudia Arabian police have arrested five men on charges of using the internet to recruit for al-Qaeda.
- Hamas set off two bombs targeting an Israeli army patrol operating near the Gaza border, again violating the ceasefire.
- Egyptian police blocked three convoys of buses trying to head to Gaza.
- Since January 2008, Egyptian security forces have killed 23 Sudanese refugees who have attempted to cross from Egypt’s Sinai Desert into Israel.
- In case you missed it, AIJAC’s Dr. Colin Rubenstein had an article in today’s Australian on the worrying discovery that Hezbollah’s TV station is again being broadcast into Australia and the Asian region.
What has and hasn’t happened in the seven years since September 11, 2001.
By Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online, September 11, 2008
Seven years ago we suffered the worst attack on the American homeland in our history. The material damage proved far greater than the 1814 British burning of Washington, the human losses more grievous than the almost 2,400 Americans lost at Pearl Harbor.
Years later, we tend to forget all the dimensions of that sinister homicidal bombing of our institutions. Radical Islam brazenly signaled that it need not have missiles or sophisticated bombers to burn 16 acres in the heart of Manhattan and set the Pentagon afire. Instead, it could turn from the inside out our own technology against us, in a manner that we were scarcely aware of — and in an iconic fashion at the heart of our greatest cities, ensuring collective psychological trauma that trumped even the terrible loss in blood and treasure.
Some bewildered Americans offered apologies that either the attacks were tit-for-tat payback for America’s overreaching global presence, or — more preposterously still — that our record against Muslims incited such hatred. And so yet another cultural war broke out over the “causes” of 9/11. Only with difficulty were the American people reminded that we had, in fact, helped Muslims in Bosnia, and in Kosovo against European Christian Serbia, and in Somalia against gangs and thugs, and in Afghanistan against the Russians, and in Kuwait against Saddam, and that the record of the Chinese, or Indians, or Russians using force against Muslims was far more frequent and cruel than our own.
Only with difficulty was the case made that the jihadists had no legitimate cause, but rather hated modernism, globalization, and Westernization — and were either abetted in their fury by illegitimate Middle East dictatorships to deflect public unrest, or even bought off by such dictators to turn their furor westward.
We forget now, seven years later, just how many scolded us, alleging (from the Right) that our liberalism and decadence, and our falling away from God, or (from the Left) our help to Israel, our overseas bases, and our need for oil caused 9/11, rather than the devilish hatred of bin Laden and the sick mind of Mohammed Atta and his ilk — emboldened by the hunch that America, as in the past, either could not or would not retaliate in serious fashion to serial terrorists attacks against its people and property.
The cruel irony of the terrorists’ methods was not limited to inversion of our modern technology: in reaction to Mohamed Atta’s breezy walk through our American airport security, tens of millions of Americans, billions of times over, were stalled in security lines, taking off their shoes, and, in humiliating fashion, undoing their belts and emptying their purses.
Yet given the nature of the postmodern liberal West, the more we checked immigrants from the Middle East to ensure that there were no more wolves in sheep’s clothing, and the more we monitored charities and mosques that had at times sponsored fringe Islamic hate groups, all the more we were pilloried as illiberal, as extremist on the defensive as the terrorists had been on the offensive. Thousands of hours were wasted refuting empty charges that a Timothy McVeigh’s isolated terrorist attack in Oklahoma City was the moral or factual equivalent of years of constant Islamic terrorism, worldwide, that had killed thousands of innocents.
The more we sought to prevent “another 9/11” through increased security, and the more therein we found success in preventing another attack, so too the more we faced yet another paradox: renewed security prompted a sense of complacence which in turn questioned the need for increased security in the first place.
In short order, civil libertarians — enjoying the unforeseen hiatus from the promised repeated attacks — accused the administration of unduly terrifying the nation. And if they could not precisely explain to the American people how their daily lives were now stripped of constitutional protection, they nevertheless were able to charge, as the peace here at home continued, that our government police needed more policing than did Bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
Critics demanded an end to wiretaps, FISA protocols, Guantánamo, and the Patriot Act. Yet when a Democratic majority took over the Congress, there was a strange unwillingness to repeal such measures — almost as if the louder they charged homeland security agencies with unconstitutional transgressions, all the more they paused, sought no legislative repeal, and suspected that the American people at least felt that through such despised protocols they had thereby in part been kept safe.
The question arose: Against whom, and when, and where, and how to hit back? Voices of doom answered that the Taliban’s Afghanistan was not the al-Qaeda perpetrator, but rather the graveyard of both British and Russian imperial troops, given its peaks, snow, warlords, and tribal badlands. Yet within five months following 9/11, the Taliban and al-Qaeda alike were routed to Pakistan and a constitutional government was in place. And while the effort to pacify Afghanistan still continues, so does the constitutional government in Kabul, which is rebuilding the country rather than hiding out in the caves of Waziristan.
It would be cruel to relate by name all those prominent Americans — including politicians, think-tankers, pundits, and military analysts — who felt once, and vehemently so, that the rogue and genocidal regime of Saddam Hussein — in violation of UN accords and 1991 armistice agreements, and the object of 12 years of no-fly zones — was an impediment to the need to change the conditions that had fostered 9/11. Yet suffice it to say that, when Iraq went from a brilliant three-week victory to someone else’s flawed and bloody five-year occupation, almost no prior supporter of the need to remove Saddam could be found. It was not just that most changed their minds as the pulse of the battlefield changed; but rather that many prior supporters insidiously convinced themselves that in the now distant past they had never advocated such a supposedly preposterous war in the first place.
Seven years later, hundreds of billions of dollars have been expended; over 4,000 Americans have been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan; and America’s preexisting cultural wounds have had their thin scabs torn off by acrimony over warring abroad and security at home. And yet herein lies the greatest paradox of all that followed from September 11. If no one on September 12, 2001 thought it possible that the United States would not be hit again by a terrorist attack of similar magnitude, here we are still free from a major terrorist assault over 2,500 days later.
Bin Laden and Dr. Zawahiri are still hiding out in the caves of tribal Pakistan, in fear of daylight sorties by deadly American drones, but counting on safety from coalition ground attack through the auspices of their wink-and-nod — and nuclear — Islamic Pakistani hosts. The top cadres of al-Qaeda, nonetheless, are now either mostly dead, captured, or in hiding. When al-Qaeda now whines in its infomercials, the complaint is about Shiite Iran who supposedly helped the infidel Americans, not the Americans themselves who alone sent them to the caves of Pakistan and defeated them in, and routed them from, Iraq.
In response, polls reveal that Middle Eastern support for bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and the tactic of suicide bombing are at an all-time low. Constitutional governments remain in power in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Al-Qaeda has suffered a terrible material and public-relations defeat in the heart of the ancient caliphate.
While many rightly point to lapses in the conduct of the Iraq war, faulty intelligence, and wrongheaded emphasis on supposed arsenals of WMDs rather than the casus belli outlined in the 23 writs authorized by the Congress, few can answer a more existential question: Had we not met, defeated, and humiliated tens of thousands of jihadists on the battlefields of Iraq, where else might we have inflicted such a terrible defeat on our enemies — given the nuclear sanctuary of Pakistan, the bellicose governments of Iran and Syria, and the duplicity of the Gulf monarchies? And if we had not killed, captured, scattered, and turned our enemies abroad, how then might we have prevented them from coming back here to attack us at home? And are the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq, as in the past, aiding anti-American terrorists, or helping to hunt them down?
The truth is, we chased al-Qaeda from Iraq and Afghanistan and it is now in lunatic fashion chasing Danish cartoonists, European novelists, and opera producers as it cuts the fingers off smokers, tries to cover up the genitalia of animals, and looks for the mentally ill to strap on suicide belts.
Long after Jacques Chirac, Michael Moore, Gerhard Schroeder, and Cindy Sheehan have come, gone, and nearly disappeared, a General David Petraeus and thousands of American soldiers and diplomats like him remain. George W. Bush is reviled, in part because of an inability to articulate what the war against terror was, and what it was for. But Bush hatred has been reduced to a sort of politically correct trinket, worn around the neck of the clannish critics as a reminder of the President’s ineptness in expression or supposedly dangerous views — without examining what others might have done to achieve the same results of achieving freedom from further attack.
But in years to come it may well be said that the president kept us safe for years when none thought he could, and removed the two most odious regimes in the Middle East and replaced them with the two best — and confronted a confident and ascendant radical Islam and left it demoralized and discredited among its own host Arab and Muslim constituents.
In the present toxic environment, all of that is not to be spoken — but all that has nevertheless happened since September 11.
Back to Top
By Matthew Levitt and Michael Jacobson
San Francisco Chronicle, September 9, 2008
As the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, and with the Bush administration entering its final months, it’s worth pausing to reflect on how much progress we’ve made these past seven years against the terrorist threat to the United States. Yet the next administration will face an evolving terrorist threat and inherit a counterterrorism regime that is still a work in progress.
While the United States has overhauled its counterterrorism structure to face this new, ever-evolving enemy, keeping up with the adapting threat is a serious challenge for the often plodding government bureaucracy.
At the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, al Qaeda was a centralized, hierarchical organization that directed international terrorist operations from its base in Afghanistan. By 2004, al Qaeda appeared to be in disarray, with its capabilities dramatically diminished. That picture has changed substantially over the past few years, as al Qaeda’s center has grown stronger once again, with its new safe haven in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where it can train and recruit operatives, and direct its global propaganda efforts.
Al Qaeda has also successfully expanded its reach through partnerships with other organizations throughout the Middle East and North Africa. These affiliates include al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
Finally, there are more local groups today inspired by al Qaeda, even if they have no direct ties. Last month, Ted Gistaro, the U.S. government’s senior counterterrorism analyst observed that al Qaeda is still working hard to motivate these “homegrown” groups to follow its lead. More than 40 organizations announced formation and pledged allegiance to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden between January 2005 and April 2007.
In the years following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the United States focused on taking aggressive action and maintaining a hard line with foreign governments. This was reflected in the four counterterrorism policy principles outlined in the State Department’s 2004 annual terrorism report: make no concessions to terrorists and strike no deals; bring terrorists to justice; isolate and pressure state sponsors of terrorism; and improve allies’ counterterrorism capabilities.
Today, the U.S. government is more focused on using all elements of national power to combat terrorism. As the State Department acknowledged in its 2007 annual terrorism report, “incarcerating or killing terrorists will not achieve an end to terrorism.” Instead, the government now pairs the use of military power with “soft power” tools, including diplomatic engagement and increased funding for agencies employing non-military tools.
There is increased recognition that putting out the right message must be an integral part of the counterterrorism strategy, because we are fighting an adversary that uses the Internet as a tool for recruitment and mass communication. The United States now realizes that discrediting the terrorists can have real-world implications, impacting their recruitment, donations and support within the world’s Muslim communities. In the words of Mike Leiter, the director of National Counterterrorism Center, “showing the barbarism of groups like al Qaeda in the light of truth is, ultimately, our strongest weapon.”
The U.S. government’s counterterrorism structure has also changed significantly since Sept. 11. The intelligence reform act in 2004 was the most major overhaul of the U.S. national security apparatus since 1947. The centerpiece of this legislation was the establishment of the position of director of national intelligence — the official now charged with leading the 16 agencies of the U.S. intelligence community.
The National Counterterrorism Center, also created by the 2004 bill, serves as the government’s intelligence fusion center — the place where counterterrorism analysts from all of the key agencies can “connect the dots.” The center also leads the U.S. government’s strategic operational planning efforts against terrorism, an endeavor that addresses the criticism that the government had no real strategy to fight al Qaeda prior to Sept. 11.
The creation of the Department of Homeland Security, meanwhile, was an even more herculean task, combining 22 different agencies with more than 180,000 employees, which were responsible for issues ranging from customs and immigration to emergency management and airport security. Four years later, the government is still struggling to define these new agencies’ counterterrorism roles and missions, in part because the agencies that have been working on these issues for decades haven’t always welcomed these new arrivals to the scene, and disputes have arisen.
Unfortunately, despite its oversight responsibilities, Congress has not been well positioned to help resolve these important disputes, because it continues to be involved in turf battles of its own. While the 9/11 Commission recommended that Congress “create a single, principal point of oversight and review for homeland security,” this recommendation has gone unheeded, and more than 80 congressional committees and subcommittees still oversee Homeland Security alone today. This is hardly a recipe for effective oversight.
The next administration will have to evaluate whether the United States is now on the right path — in terms of our strategy and our structure — or whether to chart another course. It will also need to recognize that with such a rapidly evolving threat, one cannot assume that strategies adopted today will be as successful tomorrow. In fact, al Qaeda and other like-minded groups have been adapting so rapidly that the picture may look somewhat different by January 2009.
By Hassan Mneimneh
The American Enterprise Institute, September 11, 2008
Understanding al Qaeda’s true character, structure, and strategy provides important clues about why the organization has not been able to ignite a global jihad. Still, the organization poses a grave threat to international stability and to the United States in particular. The next generation of al Qaeda leaders may be able to deliver more localized sporadic deadly attacks.
Seven years after the worst lethal attack against the U.S. mainland, the leadership of the group that claimed responsibility continues to survive with impunity. Since 2001, al Qaeda, a loosely defined organization, has had a volatile history. It has lost, then partially recovered, its main launch pad in the Afghan plateau; precariously secured, then been substantially beaten out of, a new base of operations in Iraq; claimed credit for a series of terrorist acts across the globe–shattering lives and confidence in security and state authority in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East; and initiated a failed insurgency in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of its principal, Osama bin Laden. But its hopes of igniting a global jihad have not materialized. Instead, its efforts have been effectively curtailed in many locales, it has suffered considerable setbacks in others, and it has had to confront ideological and dogmatic challenges. Most significantly, al Qaeda has so far failed to deliver on its declared goal of inflicting on the United States another spectacular terrorist attack. Still, al Qaeda remains a threat to international stability in general and to the United States in particular. The nature of the danger it represents is best understood in the context of its character, structure, and strategy.
Character and Structure
Al Qaeda is not a cohesive organization with centralized governance. Instead, it is a diffuse network of “franchises” bound primarily by a rigid reductionist ideology and broad strategic outlook. The franchises offer allegiance to a global nominal charismatic leadership that, through direct involvement or through the endorsement of local initiatives, has an arbitrage function, redirecting resources–human and financial–in order to optimize impact and effect. This function, however, tends to be ad hoc and opportunistic and not aligned with a consistent and detailed strategy. In the absence of a sophisticated strategy, al Qaeda adheres to a wholesale rejection of the world order: states, governments, and international organizations are deemed illegitimate.
The combination of ideology and loyalty allows al Qaeda to compensate for the general absence of conventional institutional structures worldwide. Local affiliates–notably in Iraq, where a bureaucracy of oppression was well anchored–have exhibited complex administrative structures. But the global organization has preserved the ephemeral and virtual aspects of the original database (the literal meaning of “al Qaeda” in Arabic) compiled by bin Laden for coordinating with like-minded “activists.”
The true character of al Qaeda has often been lost amid alarmist portrayals that paint it as the harbinger of an inevitable totalitarian caliphate and dismissive assessments that reduce it to little more than a figment of the imagination of the uninformed or the politically motivated. The lack of institutional capacity for sustained action, inherent to the nature of the diffuse network, drastically limits the likelihood of al Qaeda translating its ultimate utopian (or dystopian) dream into reality, but the carnage and dislocation it has inflicted in recent years demonstrate amply that the problem cannot be reduced to one of law and order.
Al Qaeda is not a cohesive organization with centralized governance. Instead, it is a diffuse network of “franchises” bound primarily by a rigid reductionist ideology and broad strategic outlook.
Al Qaeda may be quixotic in its pursuits, but it is none-theless waging a global war against the United States and the current world order. If war is defined as actions aimed at reducing the assets–physical, human, and financial–of one’s enemy while limiting the loss of, preserving, or increasing one’s own assets, al Qaeda’s assault on the United States seven years ago may be ranked as one of the prime examples of asymmetrical warfare in modern history. With little expenditure and with the easy sacrifice of nineteen of its foot soldiers, al Qaeda forced the United States into a conflict with rules of engagement dramatically different from any previous battles in which the United States has taken part. While the United States is bound in its conduct of war by both international conventions and its own codes of ethics, al Qaeda displays no such limitations, targeting noncombatants and other conventionally protected categories solely on the basis of their vulnerability. Al Qaeda uses the resulting imbalance to force the United States into an onerous, almost prohibitive, adherence to principles–or into the ultimately even more costly departure from these principles for the purpose of containing and eliminating the continuous threat.
Two Major Currents
Al Qaeda is not solely responsible for the degeneration in the interpretation of the Islamic corpus that gives religious sanction to acts of terrorism. Through omission and commission, Arab and Muslim intellectuals and religious leaders have condoned or endorsed statements and actions that served as building blocks for the extreme positions espoused by al Qaeda. If suicide bombing and the killing of civilians is justified in one context–as an “act of resistance” by Palestinians in Israel, for example–the justification can easily be extended to acts directed at the global hegemon, local potentates, and “complicit” populations.
Ideology, against the backdrop of an acquiescing culture, is the main component in al Qaeda’s operational model. Arab culture might have despaired about the promises of nationalists and leftists, but its acceptance of their diagnosis of societal and political ills as the ultimate responsibility of Zionism and U.S. imperialism has lingered. The al Qaeda brand of militancy is a phenomenon at the confluence of two major currents in modern Arab and Islamic cultural evolution: first, the gradual expansion of Salafism, an undeclared “reformation” within Sunni Islam seeking the return of Muslims to the original faith, traceable to the fourteenth century literalist scholar Ibn Taymiyyah and applied as a restrictive socio-religious regimentation by the clerical establishment in Saudi Arabia, and second, a paradigm shift cascading from the Arab Nahdah (“renaissance”) of the nineteenth century, replacing piety with proselytism and quietism with political activism as normative values in Muslim life and positing Islam as a “total” system and solution for all political discontent, as promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood–a movement born in Egypt in the late 1920s–and other “Islamist” formations. Both currents have adopted a sociocultural, behavior-altering approach in their host societies, relegating economic necessities and developmental needs to a nebulous background.
In the 1980s, the Afghan jihad incubator enabled the fusion of the main elements of both currents, producing the ideological framework of the uncompromising totalitarian regimentation implemented by al Qaeda and sister organizations whenever and wherever possible. The parochial character of the concerns of most militants persisted even with the creation of a de facto “jihadist international.” Whether in Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or elsewhere, jihadists returning from Afghanistan were not able to articulate an attractive message for their respective societies. Instead, their brutal actions often resulted in further alienation from mainstream society. Only with the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001–an act that created visual parity with the Superpower–was the leadership of al Qaeda able to transcend parochialism, reinvigorate jihadists, and present itself as the flag-bearer of a capable, transnational, Ummah-wide movement.
The ideological underpinnings of this movement are its adherence to Salafist religious irredentism and Islamist vanguard activism–i.e., an activism cleansed of the populist dilutions introduced by the Muslim Brotherhood and restored to its elitist character. “Ideological purity” is a sine qua non for any group seeking affiliation. The commitment to an action-oriented, unequivocal rejection of any existing order is the other prerequisite. From North Africa to the Levant, and from Yemen to Iraq, the al Qaeda imprimatur is made available only to groups that satisfy these dual requirements. The Salafist concept of al-wala’ wa-l-bara’ (allegiance to true Muslims and repudiation of all others), in belief and in practice, is presented as the foundation for a relationship with the al Qaeda leadership and the subsequent authorization of an al Qaeda franchise. And ideological purity serves as the common denominator, ensuring compatible views with limited coordination.
But even rigid literalism is capable of yielding multiple interpretations, and the textual corpus (the Quran and the Sunnah) is frequently nuanced and has tolerant inclinations. To compensate for this potential pitfall, al Qaeda ideologues have instituted a “maximalist” approach that always errs on the side of severity and austerity. Applied to the political realm, maximalism depicts all political players as strategic enemies and identifies religious justifications, however tenuous, for all hostile actions taken against them. Through this “no holds barred” approach, maximalism creates the illusion of an al Qaeda that is centralized and strategically minded.
The career of Abu Musab al Zarqawi in Iraq is an illustration of both the power of the ideology-based model and its pitfalls–from an al Qaeda perspective. Zarqawi, a Jordanian veteran of the Afghan jihad, sought and ultimately received the endorsement of the al Qaeda leadership for his actions in post-Saddam Iraq. He nonetheless preserved operational autonomy, determined the local strategy, and engaged in an effective genocide against Shiite Iraqis. While phrasing his objections in utilitarian terms (and hence preserving the maximalist stance), Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s second-in-command, cautioned Zarqawi against the harshness of his methods. Zarqawi did not heed the (half-hearted) message. The Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaeda affiliate that emerged as a result of Zarqawi’s efforts, later collapsed as a result, mutatis mutandis, of the widespread discontent of its “subjects” against the oppressive and arbitrary measures it implemented in the form of religious and social maximalism. The failure of al Qaeda in Iraq today seems irreversible; even the admission to mistakes and excesses on the part of the Islamic State of Iraq by bin Laden himself could not mitigate the counterproductive effects of its maximalism. The Sunni insurgency in Iraq is not over; it is, however, no longer a tool in the al Qaeda global jihad.
The “surge” of U.S. forces in Iraq enabled the transformation of the popular discontent in Sunni Iraqi society over the al Qaeda presence into an active force that inflicted on the global organization one of several setbacks that are ultimately the result of its dogmatic maximalism. The most important such setback, for the symbolism associated with it, was the apparent failure of the al Qaeda insurgency in Saudi Arabia. A primary supplier of suicide bombers to Iraq, through underground jihadist networks, Saudi Arabia was the ultimate prize sought by al Qaeda, both for its symbolic value as host to the two holiest cities in Islam, Mecca and Medina, and for the ideological affiliation between its clerical establishment and the al Qaeda doctrine.
A Prize Denied
Saudi Arabia represents a unique example of a partnership between an absolute monarchy and a clerical establishment to which the monarchy has delegated control over religion, culture, and education. Through the abundance of oil wealth, the Salafist beliefs espoused by the Wahhabi establishment found a means of propagation to the rest of the Muslim world. While Saudi society has largely adjusted to Salafist dogma, the relocation of Salafism to other Muslim societies is often a generator of tension and confrontation. Al Qaeda has productively used the resulting polarization for recruitment. In Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda regarded the disapproval displayed by the clerical establishment vis-à-vis the behavior and positions of the Saudi monarchy as a green light for action toward regime change. Its incremental efforts in this direction were preempted by government security operations forcing al Qaeda supporters in Saudi Arabia to premature action. This insurgency set off two important reactions. First, the clerical establishment refused to endorse the purity and maximalism openly espoused by the insurgency and commanded instead allegiance and loyalty to the monarchy, even if its adherence to Islamic precepts were less than total. Second, the Saudi public, which seemed to support, or at least condone, the brutality displayed by the al Qaeda insurgency in Iraq–often at the hands of Saudi jihadists–was appalled by its repatriation. Grievances and contradictions in Saudi society may provide new points of entry for al Qaeda. Irredentism and maximalism, however, did not yield the immediate results al Qaeda expected.
The “surge” of U.S. forces in Iraq enabled the transformation of the popular discontent in Sunni Iraqi society over the al Qaeda presence into an active force that inflicted on the global organization one of several setbacks.
Al Qaeda’s assessment of the effect of authoritarianism and dictatorship elsewhere in the Arab world was more accurate. It has thus benefited considerably from the accommodation of Islamism undertaken by Arab rulers–ostensibly to control its rise–both in gaining new recruits and channeling activists from one locale to another. Saddam Hussein sought to contain the growing Islamist threat by embracing a faith campaign that served as an actual program of initiation for Iraqi Sunni society into Salafism and Islamist activism and ensured compliance, at least for a while, with the harsh rule of Zarqawi and the Islamic State of Iraq. Similarly, Muammar al Qaddafi ravaged Libya through erratic social and educational policies, enabling grassroots Salafism and, through political repression, forcing activists out of the country to join the jihadist international. Libyans today are distinctly overrepresented in the new generation of al Qaeda–in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and beyond.
The worldwide arbitrage of jihad resources is implemented largely through Internet communications. It is, however, subject to abuse and can even be used against al Qaeda’s designs or interests. The battle of Nahr al-Barid in Northern Lebanon in 2007 as detailed below provides a distinct illustration.
The quasifictional world map adopted by al Qaeda consists of only three recognized (virtual) political entities: the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (straddling the internationally recognized Afghanistan and Pakistan), the Islamic State of Iraq, and the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus. Elsewhere, as a function of the maturity of the local conditions, it is either ard jihad (territory of jihad, including all non-Muslim lands); ard ribat (territory in which jihadists gather in anticipation of jihad); or ard nusrah (Muslim societies not ripe for jihad but ones in which jihadists can be recruited). Fath al-Islam, a self-declared Salafist jihadist formation, sought affiliation with al Qaeda, but leaked reports indicate that the al Qaeda vetting emissary advised against granting the affiliation on the grounds of the group’s nonadherence to al Qaeda ideology and the unsuitability of Lebanon as ard jihad. Ignoring the cold shoulder from al Qaeda leadership, Fath al-Islam, which appears to have links with Syrian intelligence, sought al Qaeda supporters directly over the Internet, ensuring a continuous flux of jihad volunteers to swell its ranks. By the end of its battle with the Lebanese armed forces, hundreds of jihadists that al Qaeda could have mobilized to its advantage had died, and a local Sunni population stood alienated from jihadism.
The Next Generation
While the efforts of its affiliates across the Middle East were in jeopardy, the al Qaeda leadership itself was under assault in Afghanistan. With savvy acquired over decades of local presence, it has so far been able to navigate the contradictions of the region to ensure survival and even to develop adjusted plans of action.
In Iraq, past dogmatism is tempered by a reluctant desire for accommodation, with the Islamic State of Iraq courting other Sunni insurgency factions. If the Iraqi government adheres to cautious and productive measures, this courtship may prove to be too little too late. In the Levant, a renewed focus on the Palestinian cause, the perennial motivator of Arab societies, seems to be contemplated by al Qaeda leadership in Iraq and in Afghanistan. A trustworthy local affiliate, however, does not yet exist. In North Africa, as in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa and well into Africa and Southeast Asia, al Qaeda seems to be devising approaches that might amount to serious departures from the previous strategic outlook and, if not countered, might herald a new phase for al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda continues to struggle through the paradox that the same ideology that serves to cement its authority hampers its ability to become truly powerful. The next generation of al Qaeda, steeped in ideology and trained in tactical maneuvers, may deliver more sporadic operations, but it is unlikely to succeed where its predecessor has failed in igniting a meaningful global jihad.
1. For an example of the ongoing challenges and al Qaeda’s attempt at addressing them, see the brief document “Tarshid al-‘Amal al-Jihadi” [Toward the Maturity of Jihadist Actions] by Sayyid Imam Sharif, former leader of the Egyptian al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyyah, and Ayman al Zawahiri’s January 2008 polemical 216-page refutation, “al-Tabri’ah.”
2. The rooting in jurisprudence of the license to accept high levels of civilian casualties has gravitated to expanding the concept of tatarrus (noncombatants used as human shields by the enemy) to include the virtual totality of the enemy population. See, for example, the 2005 treatise by Abu Yahya al-Libi, “al-Tatarrus fi-l-Jihad al-Mu’asir” [Human Shields in Contemporary Jihad].
3. Notable in this respect is the “groundbreaking” opinion of Yusuf Qaradawi, one of the most prominent mainline religious scholars of Islam today, in “Shar’iyyat al-‘Amaliyyat al-Istishhadiyyah fi Filistin al-Muhtallah” [On the Religious Legitimacy of the Martyrdom Seeking Operations in Occupied Palestine], which justifies civilian casualties by stressing that Israeli society is militarized in its totality.
4. On the basis of the maximalist understanding of this notion, any dialogue with non-Muslims is condemned. See, for example, the denunciation of the response of Saudi intellectuals to their U.S. counterparts in 2002 by Yusuf al-‘Ayiri, “al-Raja’ Inbatihu Sirran” [Please Prostrate in Private].
5. Zawahiri’s letter to Zarqawi was released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on October 11, 2005. It was originally contested as a fabrication, but later references to its content in Islamist circles confirmed its authenticity.
6. “Risalah li-Ahl al-‘Iraq, Ahl al-‘Ilm wa-l-Fadl al-Sadiqin” [A Letter to the People of Iraq, the Truthful Holders of Knowledge and Virtue], Al Jazeera, October 22, 2007.
7. For an example of debates, even within Salafism, on the excesses of jihadism in Iraq, see “Dahr al-Muthallib ‘ala Jawaz Tawliyat al-Muslim ‘ala Muslim min Kafir Mutaghallib” [The Refutation of the Denunciation of the Permissibility of the Appointment of Muslims to Govern Muslims by a non-Muslim Prevailing Force], circulated in Iraq in 2005.
8. “Libyans Advance in al Qaeda Network,” Los Angeles Times, February 4, 2008.
9. The incisive reporting on Fath al-Islam by the Lebanese journalist Fida’ Itani has been recently integrated into a detailed study of jihadism in Lebanon: al-Jihadiyyun fi Lubnan: Min Quwwat al-Fajr ila Fath al-Islam (Beirut: Dar al-Saqi, 2008).
10. Statements stressing the centrality of the Palestinian question were made by both leaderships. See, for example, Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi, “Al-Din al-Nasihah” [Religion Is Advice], placed on jihadist websites on February 23, 2008; and Osama bin Ladin, “Asbab al-Sira’ fi al-Dhikra al-Sittin li-Qiyam Dawlat al-Ihtilal” [The Causes of the Conflict, in the Sixtieth Anniversary of the Creation of the State of Occupation], Al Jazeera, May 17, 2008.