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Is Al Qaeda Irrelevant or Broken?

FrenchDoc's picture

Cross-posted from The Global Sociology Blog.

Two good pieces on Al Qaeda landed in my Newsreader this week and they both point in the same direction, albeit in different terms. The first one is from Tony Karon who questions the current relevance of Al Qaeda as the big post-9/11 bogeyman. For Karon, Al Qaeda is irrelevant and always was. In this respect, Al Qaeda is comparable to Trotsky... Huh? How does the comparison apply?

"Al-Qaeda is irrelevant, and yet U.S. hegemony in the Middle East is facing an unprecedented challenge from Islamist-nationalist groups. To understand the link between al-Qaeda’s weakness and the greatly expanded strength of groups such as Hamas, Hizballah, the Muslim Brotherhood and, of course, Iran, over the past seven years, it’s worth turning to the 20th century precedent: Leon Trotsky and his followers vs. the larger, nationally-focused parties of the left in the mid 20th century.

Trotsky rejected pragmatism and compromise by nationally-based leftist movements and insisted, instead, that they subordinate their specific national interests and objectives to the fantasy of “world revolution.” And as a result, long before his murder by Stalin, he found himself holed up in Mexico City, manically firing off communiques denouncing all compromise, and being largely ignored by the more substantial parties of the left world-wide. He had become an irrelevant chatterbox, caught up in a frenzy of his own rhetoric while world events simply passed him by. The same can be said of Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri — it is not al-Qaeda, but the likes of Iran, Hamas, Hizballah, and the Muslim Brotherhood that represent the future of the nationalist-Islamist challenge to Western power in the Middle East."

What makes Al Qaeda seemingly powerful are two factors: the one mentioned by Karon, that is, the fact that the United States treats Al Qaeda as this omnipresent threat of global proportion and reacts to every action as if it were the beginnings of a terrorist apocalypse. The second one, which I think is relevant here and contributes to the first, is that fact that Al Qaeda, being a non-state group, articulates itself opportunistically to nation-based movements (Algeria, Philippines, Indonesia, or Iraq).

As a result, it seems to be everywhere. From this standpoint, any terrorist activity from any group that can be defined as more or less loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda becomes an "Al Qaeda terrorist act." And if, just as opportunistically, Bin Laden or Al Zawahiri use the opportunity to issue a statement, then the filiation is definitely established and solidified in the collective American mind, with the domestic and foreign political consequences that we have witnessed in the past 7 years. Or if some militant somewhere seems to be doing, explicitly or not, what we think Al Qaeda is doing, then, he becomes an Al Qaeda militant: his killing becomes a victory against Al Qaeda.

In his latest op-ed in Abu Dhabi's The National, Tony Karon expands on the first factor and his Trotsky comparison.

"Curiously, the growing realisation that far more has been made of al Qa’eda in US foreign policy than is wise coincides with a moment in which the US strategic position in the Middle East is weaker than at any point in the past half century in the face of nationalist-Islamist challenges. That, of course, may be the point. Al Qa’eda was an ideological flight of fancy by a group of exiled Egyptian Islamic Jihad members who dreamed of folding dozens of regionally based Islamist insurgencies fighting specific grievances into a global command centre to fight the “far” enemy – the US, whose defeat al Qa’eda ideologues insisted was the key to local victories."

There are several points embedded in that quote that are worth disentangling here. The first one is the end of American hegemony that had lasted since the end of the Cold War. This is something that sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein has been discussing for a while now. The United States is slowly losing its hegemon status and many foreign policy decision have to be analyzed in the context of the perceived competition from new potential would-be rival hegemons: China, of course, or India or the European Union bloc.

The other point embedded in the quote is that of the prospects of political Islam. Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy, both French islamologists have argued that the high point of political Islam came with the success of the Iranian revolution. Since then, it's been downhill and the temporary successes of Al Qaeda have not altered that dynamic.

What such successes like 9/11 did was to put together these two dynamics and elevate the status of Al Qaeda as threats behind everything.

"Al Qa’eda is a latter-day Fourth International, a marginal force even where Islamist nationalist forces are in their most intense confrontations with the West. Those forces, in contrast to al Qa’eda, are nationally based, with clearly defined objectives, and with a strong, political base to complement their armed activities.

If Trotsky had managed to blow up a few stock exchanges and provoked Western powers into launching a “war” against him, he too might have enjoyed more of the limelight, although probably not for long. Al Qa’eda’s significance has always derived almost exclusively from the reaction its violent provocations have elicited, starting with the cruise missiles President Bill Clinton launched in response to the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998. That reaction only boosted the legend bin Laden was trying to build for himself among radical Muslim activists everywhere. And if 9/11 created a frisson of excitement among jihadists everywhere, the US response, which included invading and occupying Muslim countries, simply played into his branding strategy."

Branding? Paging Naomi Klein. What Bin Laden has been very successful at is understanding a certain number of global dynamics, political, social, economic and cultural and capitalize on them (which is easier when you're very wealthy to start with).

Strategically though, we know now that Al Qaeda was non-existent in Iraq before the invasion, and still is a marginal force now, which is why the killing of Al Zarkawi did not alter the dynamics of the conflict there. And in Afghanistan, NATO forces are having problems against the Taliban, not Al Qaeda, in combination with strictly national factors ( the strength and political authority - or lack thereof - of the central government versus the former warlords and ethnic chieftains). The globalizing brand of political Islam where every group could be unified under one banner against the "Far Enemy" (that would be the US) has failed. As Karon summarizes it, "most jihad is local." As a result then, there is no point in negotiating with Al Qaeda,

"Negotiating with al Qaeda is pointless – it represents no specific set of national interests or demands that can be engaged. Bin Laden’s problem is that he represents nothing substantial in the field of politics, unlike the nationally based movements. And with those movements, of course, there is plenty to negotiate. President George Bush, of course, like Zawahiri, takes a dim view of such negotiations. But then Bush, like bin Laden and Zawahiri, has become increasingly irrelevant to the unfolding events in the Middle East."


The different points made by Karon are confirmed by a recent report by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank in the British Independent. For instance,

"Bin Laden was trying to win over other militant groups to the global jihad he had announced against the West in 1998. Over the next five days, Bin Laden and his top aides, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, met with a dozen or so jihadist leaders. They sat on the floor in a circle with large cushions arrayed around them to discuss the future of their movement. "This was a big strategy meeting," Benotman told one of us late last year, in his first account of the meeting to a reporter. "We talked about everything, where are we going, what are the lessons of the past 20 years."

Despite the warm welcome, Benotman surprised his hosts with a bleak assessment of their prospects. "I told them that the jihadist movement had failed. That we had gone from one disaster to another, like in Algeria, because we had not mobilised the people," recalls Benotman, referring to the Algerian civil war launched by jihadists in the 1990s that left more than 100,000 dead and destroyed whatever local support the militants had once enjoyed. Benotman also told Bin Laden that the al-Qa'ida leader's decision to target the West would only sabotage attempts by groups such as Benotman's to overthrow the secular dictatorships in the Arab world. "We made a clear-cut request for him to stop his campaign against the United States because it was going to lead to nowhere," Benotman recalls, "but they laughed when I told them that America would attack the whole region if they launched another attack against it."

Benotman says that Bin Laden tried to placate him with a promise: "I have one more operation, and after that I will quit" – an apparent reference to 11 September. "I can't call this one back because that would demoralise the whole organisation," Benotman remembers Bin Laden saying.

After the attacks, Benotman, now living in London, resigned from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, realising that the United States, in its war on terrorism, would differentiate little between al-Qa'ida and his organisation.

Benotman, however, did more than just retire. In January 2007, under a veil of secrecy, he flew to Tripoli in a private jet chartered by the Libyan government to try to persuade the imprisoned senior leadership of his former group to enter into peace negotiations with the regime. He was successful. This May, Benotman told us that the two parties could be as little as three months away from an agreement that would see the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group formally end its operations in Libya and denounce al-Qa'ida's global jihad."

Unfortunately, these events went unnoticed in the United States largely because, sadly, the "Arabs are all the same" view still prevails and also because many foreign policy analysts still invoke the clash of civilizations as best explanatory model to account for the dynamics between the West and the Middle East (a view taken to strident levels after 9/11). It is a misguided, simplistic and inaccurate view, but somehow, it must be intellectually satisfying to enough people in foreign policy circles to be immunized against debunking (and debunked it has been, quite a few times). One has to turn to the Middle Eastern independent press or specific analysts like Karon or Robert Fisk to get a much more nuanced and informed analysis of the Middle East.

Moreover, and to refer again to Gilles Kepel, few American analysts have taken the time to examine the current fitna , that is, war at the heart of Islam going on in many countries where Al Qaeda was no so long ago seen as having a strong foothold.

"Why have clerics and militants once considered allies by al-Qa'ida's leaders turned against them? To a large extent, it is because al-Qa'ida and its affiliates have increasingly adopted the doctrine of takfir, by which they claim the right to decide who is a "true" Muslim. Al-Qa'ida's Muslim critics know what results from this takfiri view: first, the radicals deem some Muslims apostates; after that, the radicals start killing them. This fatal progression happened in both Algeria and Egypt in the 1990s. It is now taking place even more dramatically in Iraq, where al-Qa'ida's suicide bombers have killed more than 10,000 Iraqis, most of them targeted simply for being Shia. Recently, al-Qa'ida in Iraq has turned its fire on Sunnis who oppose its diktats, a fact not lost on the Islamic world's Sunni majority.

Additionally, al-Qa'ida and its affiliates have killed thousands of Muslim civilians elsewhere since 11 September: hundreds of Afghans killed every year by the Taliban, dozens of Saudis killed by terrorists since 2003, scores of Jordanians massacred at a wedding at a US hotel in Amman in November 2005. Even those sympathetic to al-Qa'ida have started to notice."

There is no chance of unifying different movements in political Islam if one group decides to award itself the power to state who's a true Muslim and who's not and to kill the latter.

So rather than continue to treat Al Qaeda as the big monster under the bed that we should all be afraid of, to the point of barely noticing when constitutional rights are taken away from us, we should demand a rational analysis of the actual extent of the threat facing us. That is, it would be nice to be treated as intelligent adults rather than fearful children.

The problem is that here, in the United States, there are many obstacles to a rational view of political Islam and terrorism. The hysteria is beneficial to the current administration (and let's have no illusion that it will be convenient to use to the next administration, whoever is elected president). It also fits into the apocalyptic designs of the Christian fundamentalist groups that have gain political ascendancy during the Bush administration. It also benefits the military-industrial complex that needs this country in a state of permanent war. Such militarization also fits into the worldview of the neo-conservative groups that see military interventionism as the only way to stop America's decline from hegemon status.

And let's not even mention the cowardice of the corporate media.

Rationality and critical analysis will have to come from Progressive Blogosphere 2.0 since we witnessed the massive failure of PB 1.0 during this primary and their assimilation into the corporate media.

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FrenchDoc's picture
Submitted by FrenchDoc on

I write a super long post and Cenobite summarizes it in 3 lines... *sigh*

Why are you surprised in your agreement?

Submitted by lambert on

.... and so the "mirroring" is just too fucking obvious. Great post.

[x] Very tepidly voting for Obama [ ] ?????. [ ] Any mullah-sucking billionaire-teabagging torture-loving pus-encrusted spawn of Cthulhu, bless his (R) heart.

FrenchDoc's picture
Submitted by FrenchDoc on

I can be sooooo dense sometimes! You have to put those "snark" tags for slow people like me! ;-)