The author argues that Al-Qaeda is in severe decline and is no longer a threat
The Rise And Fall of Al-Qaeda
by Fawaz A. Gerges
Published by Oxford University Press
Hardback 259 pages
In his latest book, “The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda,” Fawaz Gerges defies the notion that the West remains under Al-Qaeda’s constant and imminent threat of attack. The terrorist group whose members are found mainly in the mountains and valleys of Pakistan, the tribal areas along the Afghan border, remote areas in Yemen along the Saudi border and the vast stretches of the African Sahara and the Maghreb, is losing ground.
Nowhere has this been more visible than during the Arab Spring, the political awakening that swept through Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. Al-Qaeda was conspicuously absent, a vacuum, which is not surprising, as the terrorist organization neither has an economic program nor a political vision. Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis in the Arab world have little in common with Al-Qaeda. Moreover, the young Arabs who took to the streets do not dislike America and the West. No flags were burned and no damaging slogans were heard during the mass protests.
Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations at the London School of Economics, draws a striking parallel between the dominant view of the Soviet Union during the Cold War and the present-day view of Al-Qaeda in the United States.
While the Soviet Union reached its final stage of decline, American politicians, Republicans in particular, were still convinced that the Soviets were expanding their influence and constituted new threats. On the other hand, the media savvy of live coverage lack perspective and stories and often lack critical scrutiny, thus indirectly “reinforcing widely held perceptions of Al-Qaeda’s prowess.”
The War on Terror was largely responsible for bringing Al-Qaeda on the world stage and turning it into a global actor. Al-Qaeda in fact came into existence during the second half of the 1990s. However, even between 2003 and 2006, when its message attracted the most attention, Al-Qaeda never developed a mass following.
Since then, Al-Qaeda’s centralized command has disintegrated. Bin Laden’s inner circle were in fact the same Afghan Arabs who had fought together in Afghanistan.
“They possessed a similar worldview and a similar ‘asabiya,’ or tribal loyalty, as well. Al-Qaeda’s survival has depended on the unity and cohesion of this elite vanguard, a fact that has not received enough critical scrutiny in the West,” remarks Gerges.
There is evidence merely two years after 9/11, that Bin Laden and Zawahiri were constantly on the move, fully intent on avoiding capture and opting for personal safety over operational efficacy. This lack of security measures helped US intelligence locate Osama Bin Laden’s hideout in Abottabad, thanks to the tracking, beginning in August 2010, of the only courier he relied on, Sheikh Abu Ahmed, a Pakistani born in Kuwait, to communicate with the outside world.
Documents seized at the compound where he was killed suggest that Bin Laden still encouraged his followers to strike inside the United States. The truth is that Al-Qaeda no longer has the military and intelligence infrastructure, financial means and basic training to implement its plans. Most important of all, an overwhelming majority of Muslims disagree with Bin Laden and the majority of key Islamists and jihadists share the view that Sept. 11 was a catastrophic blunder. A significant criticism came from the Saudi preacher and scholar, Salman Al-Awdah, who reproached Osama Bin Laden of spreading “takfiri” (excommunicating Muslims) and spreading a culture of suicide bombings that caused bloodshed, suffering and ruin to Muslim communities and families.
Al-Qaeda also lost in Iraq, according to Gerges “more than a battle and country; it lost a historic opportunity to integrate itself with an aggrieved Sunni community that initially had tolerated its presence, and it lost the opportunity to make inroads into neighboring Arab countries.”
In Lebanon, the government has benefitted from a large public support which allowed the army to defeat Fatah Al-Islam which was sympathetic to Al-Qaeda’s ideology and active in the Palestinian camp of Nahr-Al-Bared. However, the Yemen-based branch of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is still determined to plot attacks in the United States. Yet, like in Afghanistan, when Al-Qaeda’s presence becomes too costly for its tribal hosts, it will no longer be tolerated.
Yemen is rocked by unemployment, dire poverty, dwindling oil revenues, rampant corruption, constant tribal unrest and inefficient state institutions. The author strongly believes that the tribes hold the key to deactivating the Al-Qaeda minefield in Yemen:
“According to my interviews with reformists and activists from Yemen, only a national unity government without Saleh at the helm, one which represents most segments of society and political colors, will be able to begin to tackle the country’s deepening structural social crisis and Al-Qaeda as well.”
Furthermore, this national coalition must include the active opposition with the tribes and this alliance must be entirely backed by Yemen’s neighbors, particularly, Saudi Arabia.
The situation in Afghanistan reflects the radicalization of the population caused by airstrikes and drones. US military commanders have even concluded that the Taleban cannot be defeated. The Taleban now support Karzai’s direct peace talks. Furthermore, a number of experienced journalists and experts on Afghanistan believe that the Taleban, having suffered heavy casualties to defeat the US-led occupation of their country, will not permit Al-Qaeda to come back to Afghanistan if they reclaim power.
Most of Al-Qaeda’s key men have either been captured or killed; the most recent target was the Yemeni-American cleric, Anwar Al-Awlaki. While Al-Qaeda has disintegrated in feuding factions, wide majorities of Muslims do not approve of suicide bombings. In 2009, a Pew Global Attitudes Survey indicated that 85 percent of those surveyed in Indonesia, 90 percent in Pakistan and 82 percent in Jordan, believe that suicide bombing was “rarely/never justified.”
Al-Qaeda has lost the struggle for Muslim hearts,” writes Gerges in this incisive history of the terrorist organization. A leading authority on radical ideologies, the author argues that this marginal entity is kept alive, artificially, by the anti-terrorist bureaucracy it help create in the US and elsewhere.
“The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda” brings out the truth about this organization, which is still not accurately portrayed in the media. Gerges questions its current viability in the light of the Arab spring. Arab regimes, responsive to their constituents' grievances, offer an effective weapon against the spread of terrorists groups.
“Only then will Al-Qaeda, like Osama Bin Laden, not only die, but, finally, be allowed to die,” he says.