Second, that it would make the West and particularly the United States the main target of attack, most notably in the September 11, 2001, assault. This point, however, became less salient once September 11 happened. What are you going to do for an encore? Tighter Western security made repeating the feat more difficult. Moreover it became possible for Al Qaeda to operate in Muslim-majority countries. As a factor in Western psychology and policy, then, Al Qaeda’s focus on the West remained hugely important but as a political strategy it was largely abandoned except for scattered “reminder” attack attempts. Today, Al Qaeda is mainly attacking rivals in Yemen, Somalia, and Syria. Even in Iraq the main target wasn’t the United States itself.
Third, that the movement would focus on one activity, terrorist attacks, and try to carry out a “permanent revolution.” In other words, it was always the right time to wage armed struggle and that battle wouldn’t stop until the movement was wiped out. Other, smaller groups had taken that road in Egypt but had not lasted very long before being destroyed by the government. Understandably, this approach was not a great revolutionary strategy, especially as compared with more sophisticated groups that built mass bases and knew how to change gears, especially the Muslim Brotherhood and even other Salafist groups.
So while Egypt had an Islamist revolution it was quite different from the one envisioned by the 1990s’ Salafists or by the Al Qaeda supporters. Indeed, it was a revolution that, contrary to the 1990s’ revolutionaries, was made with the backing of the army and, contrary to the Al Qaeda revolutionaries, was made with the backing of the United States!
The same point applies to Syria and Tunisia as well as, in a different way, to Turkey, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip.
Of course, once the regime is overthrown and elections are held terrorism is no longer needed. You don’t have to raid police stations for guns if you control the military; don’t have to kill oppositionists with bombs when you can set the police force on them; don’t need to rob banks to raise funds when you have the keys to the national treasury.
And you don’t need to use terrorism to overthrow the regime if you have already overthrown the regime. Indeed, you don’t need to use terrorism against the regime if you are the regime. Terror, Brennan says, is merely a tactic. He’s right. It is a way of reaching a goal and that goal is seizing state power, fundamentally transforming the society, and using that power to battle U.S. influence, subvert the remaining non-Islamist regimes, and try to wipe out Israel.
Consider this historical analogy. Once Hitler took power he dismantled the storm troopers, even killing their leaders, because he didn’t need them any more. The Bolsheviks wiped out the anarchists and Social Revolutionary Party which had committed so much terrorism in earlier years. Lenin’s own brother was a terrorist who was executed by the Czarist regime. When Lenin took power, terrorism of the old type disappeared. There was only, as in Nazi Germany, state repression. Now that’s, according to the way the Obama Administration sees things, real progress!
The Muslim Brotherhood goes nowhere near that far. The Salafist groups are still quite useful for indoctrinating citizens and intimidating opponents. When you want Christians taught a lesson, women put down, and an embassy stormed, or an Islamist constitution passed, the Salafists provide wonderful and when necessary deniable service.
Here is an important principle in studying the politics of this contemporary era: Violence (including terrorism) is not the main measure of radicalism. Instead, the way to judge the extremism of a group is the organization’s ideology, goals, and seriousness in seeking total victory. Strategic and tactical flexibility should be taken into account but do not mitigate the threat posed by the objective toward which any political force is striving.
Finally, the bottom line is different from what both sides of the debate have claimed:
Ironically, the United States has a counterterrorist policy but it does not have a national security strategy. It has a way of reducing anti-American terrorism—let or even help Islamists seize power—but does not realize that anti-American regimes are far more dangerous than a bunch of guys in caves.