Posted: January 31, 2007
Books discussed in this essay:
ive years after September 11, al-Qaeda still exists. Osama bin Laden remains on the loose; the organization plays a leading role in the Iraqi insurgency; and the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, its leader there, brought worldwide headlines. Yet one cannot help feeling that it is a bit passé as an organization; so, too, bin Laden as a leader, and al-Qaeda's priority of attacking America as a jihadist tactic. New forces have largely shouldered them aside—Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for instance, or the Muslim Brotherhood—and new strategies for obtaining power and influence point far beyond coordinated bombings to elections and drives for nuclear weapons. Hamas is running the Palestinian Authority and Hezbollah is in the Lebanese government coalition. Since their drubbing in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda has been homeless. Doubtless the group will continue plotting against the West, and from time to time we may confront such enormities as August's thwarted scheme to bring down ten airliners. But I believe al-Qaeda is, in 2006, largely a spent force.
Al-Qaeda remains the most extreme revolutionary Islamist movement, but it is hardly distinct in its beliefs or actions. Part of the problem with much writing on bin Laden and his group is that it treats them in relative isolation from the larger radical Islamist and Arab political milieus. But before turning to al-Qaeda and its context, let us briefly consider bin Laden the global terrorist entrepreneur.
There is little mystery here. Four factors shaped the individual who would become the world's most wanted man, with a $50 million bounty on his head. First, he was apparently a nice person, a critical if paradoxical point. He wanted to be kind and good and help people; he did not seek wealth or comfort for himself. His altruism not only made him willing and eager to suffer for his cause, but it also helped persuade others that he was a virtual holy man whose purity made him Islam's redeemer. Second, he was a fanatic who sought to be a perfect Muslim, to go further than others in the strictness of his observance and in his dedication. Compromise was, to him, betrayal. Third, he came from a fantastically wealthy family. Money made many things possible for him. But he was also spoiled in spiritual terms; he believed he could do anything and yield to no one. Finally, his understanding of Islam was at once radical and ignorant. He began as a Wahhabi, the most extreme sect within mainstream Islam, known for its intolerance and austerity. Yet his education, relatively modern by Saudi standards, deprived him of the kind of historically and hierarchically oriented instruction that a cleric receives. As a result, bin Laden came to believe that he could interpret Islam irrespective of historical practice or the rulings of most senior clerics.
The Rise of al-Qaeda
Peter Bergen's The Osama bin Laden I Know is a remarkable read. The author, familiar to many as CNN's terrorism analyst, is also a freelancer who has covered al-Qaeda for years, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and an adjunct professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. In his book he pieces together interviews, articles, and documents (usually extracts) to give a sequential view of bin Laden's development. While the constant switching of sources is somewhat jarring and not all are equally credible, the book certainly provides the clearest narrative account of bin Laden's life, surpassing other recent efforts like Jonathan Randal's Osama: The Making of a Terrorist (2004), Bruce Lawrence's Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden (2005), or Michael Scheuer's Through Our Enemies' Eyes (2006).
While supporting the local insurgency in Afghanistan against the Soviet takeover, bin Laden enjoyed close links to the Saudi regime (and not, by the way, to U.S. intelligence, which worked directly only with the Afghans). He became intoxicated by the revolutionary atmosphere and resolved to turn the struggle into a much broader jihad, which he believed would, over time, transform the entire Muslim world. Al-Qaeda was founded just as the Afghan war was coming to an end and bin Laden was seeking new battlefields. According to a magazine he published to announce the founding of the group in 1988—cited in Bergen's book—"The vanguard constitutes the solid base [al-Qaeda al-Sulbah] for the expected society." Two years later, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, bin Laden tried to convince the Saudi rulers that they should depend on his international brigade and not on U.S. forces. Understandably, the Saudis preferred the American military to bin Laden's barely trained foot soldiers, whose service in Afghanistan had been marked by personal bravery but military incompetence.
These events touched off the next phase of his career. He turned to overthrowing the existing regimes in the Arab world and other Muslim states (as had many other Islamists, some inspired by the Iranian revolution a decade earlier, others, like bin Laden, fighting what they perceived to be corrupt, apostate regimes). During the next few years, both in Sudan and back in Afghanistan, bin Laden built his organization, which benefited from the failure of Islamic revolutionary movements everywhere else. After Iran's 1979 revolution, Islamists expected quick victories across the Muslim world, but 27 years later, their only triumph in Arab lands had been a temporary one in Sudan. These movements lost not only because the regimes they opposed were too strong and clever, but because the Muslim masses did not embrace groups that attacked fellow Muslims rhetorically and physically.
Evaluating this history—but refusing to admit either defeat or unpopularity--the Egyptian Islamic Jihad leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, a doctor with little formal training in Islam but whose influence on bin Laden steadily increased, proposed a new idea: put the priority on attacking the West, especially America. The United States could not only be the scapegoat for everything that had gone wrong with the Muslim world, but now for the Islamist revolutionaries' defeats as well. Actually, the U.S. had almost nothing to do with these battles. But by the late 1990s, al-Qaeda had declared war on America, followed by several spectacular terrorist acts, culminating in September 11.
If terrorism within Arab countries proved futile in overthrowing regimes and installing al-Qaeda in power, perhaps terrorism against the West would mobilize enough support to make revolution at home a second step. One of the best expositions of this strategy was offered by al-Qaeda associate Abu Musab al-Suri, quoted in Bergen's book. Bin Laden, he explained, had two options. The first, to fight the Saudis, was "[a] losing battle in the eyes of the people due to the size and influence of the Saudi religious establishment that has planted legitimacy and prestige in the minds of the people for the past seventy years or more." The second, "safer route," was to attack the Americans. If the Saudis and their religious establishment defended these infidels, they would be discredited. With the second option, chosen by bin Laden, "[t]he battle will be on clearer grounds in the eyes of the people." Thus one of bin Laden's bodyguards, also quoted in Bergen, explained that the attacks on American targets were designed to "raise the morale of the Islamic nation…. They proved to the Islamic world a Muslim ability to break U.S. prestige and hegemony."
Although bin Laden's direct targeting of America was innovative, his ideology was mostly second-hand, stemming not only from other Islamists but from the very Arab regimes that he identified as his enemies. According to this too familiar doctrine, the cause of the Arab-Muslim world's relative weakness is (a) its abandonment of Arab and Islamic unity, and (b) the imperialist-Zionist conspiracy, which ceaselessly plots against Arab and Muslim interests. (Bin Laden, going even further, saw traditional Arab nationalist regimes as traitors and lackeys.) Thus only Arab unity and Muslim jihad could overthrow corrupt regimes, destroy Israel, and exorcise Western influence from the region.
This brand of thinking is still broadcast daily across the Arab world by regimes, media, schools, clerics, and virtually every other institution, with only the rarest voice of refutation. The utility in such conspiracy thinking is to explain away the failures of Arab regimes to achieve victory or progress; in addition, insofar as a regime pledges to fight the enemy, it mobilizes mass support for itself. But as the years passed and the nationalist regimes did not make good on their promises, the Islamist, anti-nationalist variety of this thinking grew in influence. It is impossible to understand bin Laden and al-Qaeda without this context.
Follow the Money
J. Millard Burr, a former state department official who has worked with international charities for more than four decades, and Robert O. Collins, a retired history professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara—authors of Alms for Jihad—have written a detailed, comprehensive, and indeed definitive study on how jihad is financed around the world. They observe that there are more than 6,000 Islamic charities globally—in Arab lands, Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America—ranging from small personal funds to giant foundations. Only 14 such institutions have been associated directly with al-Qaeda. But, the authors explain, "[i]t is not the number of Islamic charities devoted to Islamist and jihadist terrorism, but their size, outreach, and above all their wealth that has enabled them to have a significant international impact far out of proportion to their numbers…."
There is a lot of first-rate research and analysis in the book, especially in its tracing of Saudi charities, including those sponsored by government agencies. One technique used by jihadists before September 11 was to staff official or semi-official charities and thus ensure that the money went to their colleagues. Meanwhile, despite Israeli warnings and intelligence about how much money was being raised for terrorism even from within the U.S., the Clinton Administration refused to act; it was "reluctant to initiate investigations of any Islamic charities that could precipitate charges of religious bigotry and accusations of ethnic discrimination…." In 2000-2001 alone, one U.S. charity paid out $650,000 to radical Islamists in the Balkans.
Only after September 11 did the U.S. move energetically to staunch this flow, and only after a terrorist campaign began against the Saudi regime in 2003 was Riyadh willing to lift a finger. (Nonetheless, the export of Saudi "charity" money to support foreign jihadist movements continues.) A raid on the Bosnian office of one Islamic charity in March 2002 uncovered a secret organization called the Golden Chain, consisting of 20 wealthy al-Qaeda backers. These donor businessmen and bankers—officials at the top Saudi banks—had an estimated net worth of over $85 billion. A third of them sent their contributions directly to Osama bin Laden. Of special interest is the authors' examination of Islamist charities in Europe, where the network has reached enormous proportions.
Burr and Collins do an admirable job. They take an extremely complex issue and explain it clearly, telling a fascinating story in a scholarly manner. What is most impressive, they do so without any sensationalizing and with a keen grasp of Islamic principles underlying charitable giving. This book is highly recommended.
Walid Phares, a terrorism analyst for MSNBC and senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, takes a somewhat different tack in his Future Jihad. He focuses on al-Qaeda's operations against the U.S. and how America can cope with the threat. His book is especially useful in detailing the denial of radical Islamism's threat before September 11 by "a large segment of the academic and diplomatic circles" of the United States. He explains how this weakened America's ability both to understand jihadism and to defend against it. Even a half decade after the attacks, these same forces of denial continue to apologize for and minimize the threat.
A basic question still needs, however, to be answered. How well does bin Laden actually understand U.S. policy in the Islamic world? If other people in the region are any indication, probably very poorly. American policies are continually distorted by every Arab and Iranian institution, almost without exception. To select two from hundreds of examples: to this day, Egyptian schoolchildren are taught that U.S. planes attacked their country in 1967 and destroyed their air force; and Egyptian newspapers routinely claim that all terrorism in Iraq is sponsored by the U.S. in order to divide Sunni and Shia. The chief grudge that Islamists have against American policy—and here they see shrewdly—is explained by Phares: "The main force preventing jihadists from taking over Muslim governments remains the United States…. Paralyzing the American capacity to intervene worldwide would allow the Islamists to overrun their foes and implement their plans."
The Decline of al-Qaeda
How likely is al-Qaeda to realize its ambitions? The answer is far less clear than it is for other Islamist groups. Today, everywhere except among Iraqi Sunnis and in Saudi Arabia, the Islamist struggle is not conducted by transnational al-Qaedists, but by local groups: Hamas, Hezbollah, Jordan's Islamic Action Front, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, and others. How, then, has al-Qaeda lost its position as the "vanguard" of world Islamic revolution? First, its war on America has had limited results, especially considering its failure to perpetrate any attacks here since September 11. Moreover, its transnational approach prevents it from gaining a strong foothold in any particular country. Its insistence on armed struggle as its sole tactic also limits its appeal and ability to maneuver, ensuring that it remains a terrorist threat, but not a political one. It does not help that its leaders lack Islamic credentials—even the clerics who provide it with support are mostly second-rate. Finally, many radical Islamists criticize al-Qaeda for letting Arab regimes off the hook by abandoning domestic revolutionary efforts (except in Saudi Arabia).
The case of Iraq, where al-Qaeda is apparently most significant, proves these points. The late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian street thug turned Islamist revolutionary thug, did not have very impressive Islamic credentials compared to, say, Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, a senior Muslim Brotherhood mentor. When Zarqawi denounced participation in elections as an act of defiance against God—implied in democracy's rule of the people as opposed to the rule of God—Qaradawi, himself an endorser of terrorism and with views quite close to those of al-Qaeda, suggested that the Islamists would be fools not to run in elections if they thought victory was possible. Zarqawi also expanded his jihad in Iraq into a crusade against Kurds and Shia, who compose 80% of that country's population. Not only did this undercut any general anti-American insurgency, it exposed the Sunni minority to massacre should the communal civil war he sought ever come to pass. In effect, Zarqawi's strategy pushed the Shia and Kurds into the arms of America.
Two other developments demonstrate how al-Qaeda has been superseded both as a model Islamist organization and as the world's prime instigator of Islamic terrorism. First is Hezbollah's success in initiating a war with Israel, then surviving Israel's onslaught. This will make Hezbollah—a state-within-a-state, composed of trained terrorists-cum-soldiers, armed by Syria and Iran, fielding its own spokesmen and television channels—a model for future groups. A second development is the frightening proliferation of tiny, homegrown terrorist cells in European cities. In these cases, Muslim immigrants or their children imbibe al-Qaeda's ideology from afar (perhaps over the internet), then take up the sword of jihad independently of al-Qaeda's hierarchy. Not only in London but also in Canada and Germany, young Muslims, born and raised in those countries, sometimes even native converts, have been apprehended while planning a terrorist attack.
Al-Qaeda is surviving, as we were reminded in August. It is still able to stir passions and it is indifferent to losses. Every defeat is proclaimed a victory. Yet General Patton was right: the goal of war is not to die for your country but to make your enemy die for his. Bin Laden inaugurated the global Islamist movement and was essential to disseminating its hideous ideas. Today, however, the various Muslim Brotherhood offshoots like Hamas, and Shia Islamist groups like Hezbollah, have a much brighter future than al-Qaeda. They focus on one country and know how to maneuver tactically. Al-Qaeda makes for a lot of disruption and violence, but it will never rule anywhere. Bin Laden may become a martyr, but he will never be a political leader.