Fawaz Gerges, a prominent Middle Eastern scholar, notes that there exists a ‘terrorism narrative’ in the West. Amongst government officials and the wider public, the notion of imminent terrorist attack seems institutionalised, and many would point the finger at the mediatic al-Qaeda. There is however a disconnect between this narrative and reality. Indeed, since 9/11, al-Qaeda has experienced dramatic decline, and its capacity to conduct operations is now limited to our unwillingness to forget its tragic attacks.
Following al-Qaeda’s expulsion from its safe haven in Afghanistan, the organisation began declining. With its remaining leadership on the run, operational capabilities were amputated. Moreover, regimes throughout the Arab world were increasingly willing to crack down on the organisation. In 2002, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, for example, consented to the CIA assassination of Abu al-Hartithi, then leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen, as well as five of his colleagues in a drone strike. Similarly, following 9/11, Pakistani authorities offered valuable and tangible assistance to the US, helping to arrest more than 400 of bin Laden’s top lieutenants and operatives, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubayda, who was considered the third-ranking figure in al-Qaeda.
However, America’s invasion of Iraq and its ‘War on Terror’ marked an opportunity to reverse al-Qaeda’s decline and survival. As popular opinion turned against the perceived ‘foreign occupier’ threatening the umma (the global Muslim community), credibility to an armed vanguard increased; opportunity for al-Qaeda recruitment appeared and offshoot cells were born. Ironically, Bush’s attempt to stabilise the region through military force simply enabled al-Qaeda to re-organise itself militarily, and decentralise its decision-making process.
Shifts in ideological standing only seemed to favour al-Qaeda’s revival. For example, Iraq’s Tawhid wa-l-Jihad – led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – had denounced al-Qaeda’s strategy and tactics prior to the war, and only sought to exacerbate Iraq’s sectarian tension to ignite civil war. Yet, facing foreign assault from a common enemy, Zarqawi declared his allegiance to bin Laden in October 2004, and renamed his group ‘al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers’ in an act of unification. As a response, Bin Laden anointed Zarqawi as emir in Iraq and his deputy. Hiding in Pakistan, bin Laden was fast becoming isolated and increasingly peripheral. Seemingly, amalgamations with an operationally active Zarqawi would only re-ignite al-Qaeda’s relevance and increase the group’s capacity to challenge the United States. Indeed, between 2004 and 2006, Zarqawi’s strength and numbers exceeded that of the central organisation.
However, an alliance with Zarqawi dramatically backfired, and only served to disconnect al-Qaeda from the crucial support of the Muslim masses. In his continued pursuit of sectarian strife, Zarqawi frequently and deliberately attacked Iraqi civilians, particularly targeting Shiites, regardless of age or gender. Even Sunni tribal leaders – frequent supporter and recruiters to the al-Qaeda cause– became targets following denunciations of Zarqawi’s brutal devices. Many consequently joined US sponsored Awakening Councils, expelling and denouncing al-Qaeda sympathisers. Criticism also came from Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Zarqawi’s spiritual mentor and prominent Salafi-Jihadi ideologue. ‘Terrorism against civilians’, he asserted, ‘harmed the interests of the umma and tarnished the image of Islam’.
In July 2005, al-Qaeda’s central leadership urged Zarqawi to rein-in his violence, citing that the mujahedeen’s strongest weapon was public endorsement; “we should maintain this support as best we can”, a letter to Zarqawi reads, “and strive to increase it.”
Zarqawi’s stance proved incorruptible and al-Qaeda Central was to pay the price. By the time Zarqawi was killed by an airstrike in June 2006, al-Qaeda’s presence in Iraq was much depleted. Indeed, the central leadership’s ambition to establish a caliphate in vulnerable Iraq – capitalising on a leadership-vacuum and substantial anti-American sentiment – and use such a footing to project Islamist ideology region-wide remained nothing but a vision. A historic opportunity to exploit Iraq and its Sunni population had passed; hopes to revive a declining movement were scuppered.
Since 2006, public opinion sharply swayed against al-Qaeda and, as a result, the organisation suffered from a grave shortage of capable recruits. Opinion polls conducted by Gallup in 2007 showed that 93 percent of respondents from 35 predominantly Muslim countries condemned the killing of non-combatants. Terror Free Tomorrow similarly polled in 2007 that 88 percent of Saudis approved government crackdowns on al-Qaeda operatives. Less than 10 percent of these respondents sympathised with al-Qaeda’s ideological standing. More importantly, polls point to a significant decline in support. In August 2007, 33 percent of Pakistanis supported al-Qaeda. By January 2008, support had dropped to 18 percent. A 2008 Saudi intelligence report asserted that 70 percent of information obtained about al-Qaeda suspects was sourced from relatives, friends, and neighbours; not from government agencies or surveillance. Moreover, 160 prominent Saudi scholars had indirectly opposed bin Laden through a published manifesto in Riyadh proclaiming Islam to be a religion of tolerance. Once again, bin Laden’s last bid to re-energise al-Qaeda was delusional.
More telling to the organisation’s decline however was the revolt from within faced by al-Qaeda Central. In 2007, Salman al-Awdah, a prominent and respected Salafi scholar and mentor of bin Laden, rebuked him publically: “My brother Osama… you are responsible for… bloodshed and suffering and have brought ruin to entire Muslim communities.” Al-Awdah consequently joined Shia intellectuals and petitioned for elections and an end to sectarian discrimination. In October 2007, bin Laden’s public apology and call for al-Qaeda “brothers everywhere to avoid extremism” tacitly acknowledged the leadership’s helplessness over his splintered global franchise. Credible criticism also came from Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, an operative who had fought alongside Zawahiri and bin Laden in the 1980s and 1990s, but defected over to the US government in 1996. Calling the al Qaeda leadership “untrustworthy” and “extremely immoral”, his series of newspaper articles entitled Rationalising Jihad further scolded the movement’s transnational ideology and strategy on theological grounds.
Naturally, Zawahiri and bin Laden each sought to defend their organisation through public response, but this only served to highlight al Qaeda’s central dilemma: the organisation had driven into a conceptual cul-de-sac. Lacking forte, the leadership could merely hide and wait, hoping that, somewhere in the West, a radical young Muslim would carry out an attack in the name of al Qaeda. That, says Fawaz Gerges, is now the extent of al-Qaeda’s strategic reach.
Al-Fadl’s comments regarding the organisation’s decline – whereby it is finished as a coherent and functional organisation – seem appropriate to conclude with. However the true conclusion lies with the National Intelligence Estimate on Trends in Global Terrorism, which highlights that the mainstream community of believers, by their rejection of al-Qaeda’s ideology, remain the most powerful weapon in this war.
Acknowledgement: Gerges, F. A. ‘The Rise and Fall of al-Qaeda’, 2011