Originally published at Rubin Reports.
It’s time, a dozen years after September 11 and following Islamist coups in the Gaza Strip; Islamist electoral revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Turkey; and a probable Islamist victory during the next year in Syria–to rethink completely our view of Al Qaeda.
First, Al Qaeda wasn’t involved in any of these events or in several more big developments we could list. Second, Al Qaeda hasn’t disappeared, contrary to the Obama Administration’s claims. And third, the American homeland is now demonstrably well-protected from terrorist attacks so consequently while success on this front remains important it need not be the top U.S. strategic priority.
So let me propose a new way of looking at things:
Aside from being a problem of counter-terrorism—that is, of law enforcement—Al Qaeda is no longer important. It certainly isn’t strategically important nor is it important for the biggest and most essential U.S. national interests. That doesn’t mean Al Qaeda should be ignored. Yet combating it is relatively manageable.
This alternative view is especially significant at a moment when the new CIA director is the father—and the president, secretary of state, and secretary of defense the avid fans—of a theory that places Al Qaeda at the center of the world stage. Basically their theory goes like this:
Al Qaeda is terribly evil and a threat to America. It must be fought. But all Islamism—except for Al Qaeda—can be moderated and won over by a sympathetic U.S. policy. The Islamists are the best people to handle and defeat Al Qaeda and by giving the people what they want–Islam running the society–their desire to commit terrorism or attack America will subside. After all, if the United States shows itself to be Islamism’s best friend, why should Islamists be angry at it? This strategy began with Obama’s Cairo speech which was a profoundly pro-Islamist statement, and that’s why he invited Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders to sit in the front row.
In other words, put your enemies in power and they are no longer your enemies. Moreover, once Islamists get into power they will get entangled in party politics, paving roads, running schools, and doing all the other things that governments do. They will lose their radicalism and certainly stop using violence.
Now there’s a lot to say against this theory. It either hasn’t worked historically on other radical ideologies—Nazism, fascism, Communism—or at least only after a very long time in power (including millions of victims) often mixed in with military debacles. It can be said to have worked with radical Arab nationalism but only after 50 years and multiple military defeats. This was also the precise theory that underpinned the 1990s’ Oslo peace process and assumptions about Yasir Arafat settling down to become a great and practical statesman. And that didn’t work either.
Moreover, it ignores the fundamental extremism, anti-Americanism, antisemitism, anti-Christian, and anti-women tenets of Islamist philosophy, which are rooted in reasonable (but not the only possible) interpretations of Islam. And it also leaves out the power gained once radicals take over institutions. Sure they’ll be running the schools but that doesn’t mean they will become entangled in planning curricula so much as to persuade people they should grow up to be radical Islamists and jihad warriors.
Finally, all Islamists want Islamist rule and the application of Sharia as the law. Some will talk and do nothing; others will talk and organize; others will use violence, and among those who organize there are those who can seize state power—in Muslim majority countries—and those that will fail. The Muslim Brotherhood is brilliant tactically; Al Qaeda has only one note in its orchestra, endless struggle and terrorism rather than political maneuvering and building a mass base.
Usually, as you can see, when I talk about this issue I stress the non-Al Qaeda side of the equation. But it’s time to reanalyze Al Qaeda also.
The importance of Al Qaeda in the history of Islamism is actually more marginal than it might seem from the massive study and headlines it generated. Al Qaeda had three innovations of importance:
First, that the movement be international, fighting simultaneously on all fronts. While the Muslim Brotherhood had been an international group it had a limited number of branches, only four of real significance. However, this only succeeded because Al Qaeda’s organization—especially after the U.S. destruction of the center in Afghanistan and long before Osama bin Ladin’s assassination—was so loose. Basically, local groups could simply affiliate with Al Qaeda without being its actual creation. Being active everywhere and not concentrating one’s forces is a formula for survival but also a recipe for ultimate defeat.