By Hassan Mneimneh
1st part of 2
Understanding al Qaeda's true character, structure, and strategy provides important clues about why the organization has not been able to ignite a global jihad. Still, the organization poses a grave threat to international stability and to the United States in particular. The next generation of al Qaeda leaders may be able to deliver more localized sporadic deadly attacks.
Seven years after the worst lethal attack against the U.S. mainland, the leadership of the group that claimed responsibility continues to survive with impunity. Since 2001, al Qaeda, a loosely defined organization, has had a volatile history. It has lost, then partially recovered, its main launch pad in the Afghan plateau; precariously secured, then been substantially beaten out of, a new base of operations in Iraq; claimed credit for a series of terrorist acts across the globe--shattering lives and confidence in security and state authority in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East; and initiated a failed insurgency in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of its principal, Osama bin Laden. But its hopes of igniting a global jihad have not materialized. Instead, its efforts have been effectively curtailed in many locales, it has suffered considerable setbacks in others, and it has had to confront ideological and dogmatic challenges. Most significantly, al Qaeda has so far failed to deliver on its declared goal of inflicting on the United States another spectacular terrorist attack. Still, al Qaeda remains a threat to international stability in general and to the United States in particular. The nature of the danger it represents is best understood in the context of its character, structure, and strategy.
Character and Structure
Al Qaeda is not a cohesive organization with centralized governance. Instead, it is a diffuse network of "franchises" bound primarily by a rigid reductionist ideology and broad strategic outlook. The franchises offer allegiance to a global nominal charismatic leadership that, through direct involvement or through the endorsement of local initiatives, has an arbitrage function, redirecting resources--human and financial--in order to optimize impact and effect. This function, however, tends to be ad hoc and opportunistic and not aligned with a consistent and detailed strategy. In the absence of a sophisticated strategy, al Qaeda adheres to a wholesale rejection of the world order: states, governments, and international organizations are deemed illegitimate.
The combination of ideology and loyalty allows al Qaeda to compensate for the general absence of conventional institutional structures worldwide. Local affiliates--notably in Iraq, where a bureaucracy of oppression was well anchored--have exhibited complex administrative structures. But the global organization has preserved the ephemeral and virtual aspects of the original database (the literal meaning of "al Qaeda" in Arabic) compiled by bin Laden for coordinating with like-minded "activists."
The true character of al Qaeda has often been lost amid alarmist portrayals that paint it as the harbinger of an inevitable totalitarian caliphate and dismissive assessments that reduce it to little more than a figment of the imagination of the uninformed or the politically motivated. The lack of institutional capacity for sustained action, inherent to the nature of the diffuse network, drastically limits the likelihood of al Qaeda translating its ultimate utopian (or dystopian) dream into reality, but the carnage and dislocation it has inflicted in recent years demonstrate amply that the problem cannot be reduced to one of law and order.
Al Qaeda is not a cohesive organization with centralized governance. Instead, it is a diffuse network of "franchises" bound primarily by a rigid reductionist ideology and broad strategic outlook.
Al Qaeda may be quixotic in its pursuits, but it is none-theless waging a global war against the United States and the current world order. If war is defined as actions aimed at reducing the assets--physical, human, and financial--of one's enemy while limiting the loss of, preserving, or increasing one's own assets, al Qaeda's assault on the United States seven years ago may be ranked as one of the prime examples of asymmetrical warfare in modern history. With little expenditure and with the easy sacrifice of nineteen of its foot soldiers, al Qaeda forced the United States into a conflict with rules of engagement dramatically different from any previous battles in which the United States has taken part. While the United States is bound in its conduct of war by both international conventions and its own codes of ethics, al Qaeda displays no such limitations, targeting noncombatants and other conventionally protected categories solely on the basis of their vulnerability. Al Qaeda uses the resulting imbalance to force the United States into an onerous, almost prohibitive, adherence to principles--or into the ultimately even more costly departure from these principles for the purpose of containing and eliminating the continuous threat.
Two Major Currents
Al Qaeda is not solely responsible for the degeneration in the interpretation of the Islamic corpus that gives religious sanction to acts of terrorism. Through omission and commission, Arab and Muslim intellectuals and religious leaders have condoned or endorsed statements and actions that served as building blocks for the extreme positions espoused by al Qaeda. If suicide bombing and the killing of civilians is justified in one context--as an "act of resistance" by Palestinians in Israel, for example--the justification can easily be extended to acts directed at the global hegemon, local potentates, and "complicit" populations.
Ideology, against the backdrop of an acquiescing culture, is the main component in al Qaeda's operational model. Arab culture might have despaired about the promises of nationalists and leftists, but its acceptance of their diagnosis of societal and political ills as the ultimate responsibility of Zionism and U.S. imperialism has lingered. The al Qaeda brand of militancy is a phenomenon at the confluence of two major currents in modern Arab and Islamic cultural evolution: first, the gradual expansion of Salafism, an undeclared "reformation" within Sunni Islam seeking the return of Muslims to the original faith, traceable to the fourteenth century literalist scholar Ibn Taymiyyah and applied as a restrictive socio-religious regimentation by the clerical establishment in Saudi Arabia, and second, a paradigm shift cascading from the Arab Nahdah ("renaissance") of the nineteenth century, replacing piety with proselytism and quietism with political activism as normative values in Muslim life and positing Islam as a "total" system and solution for all political discontent, as promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood--a movement born in Egypt in the late 1920s--and other "Islamist" formations. Both currents have adopted a sociocultural, behavior-altering approach in their host societies, relegating economic necessities and developmental needs to a nebulous background.
In the 1980s, the Afghan jihad incubator enabled the fusion of the main elements of both currents, producing the ideological framework of the uncompromising totalitarian regimentation implemented by al Qaeda and sister organizations whenever and wherever possible. The parochial character of the concerns of most militants persisted even with the creation of a de facto "jihadist international." Whether in Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or elsewhere, jihadists returning from Afghanistan were not able to articulate an attractive message for their respective societies. Instead, their brutal actions often resulted in further alienation from mainstream society. Only with the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001--an act that created visual parity with the Superpower--was the leadership of al Qaeda able to transcend parochialism, reinvigorate jihadists, and present itself as the flag-bearer of a capable, transnational, Ummah-wide movement.
The ideological underpinnings of this movement are its adherence to Salafist religious irredentism and Islamist vanguard activism--i.e., an activism cleansed of the populist dilutions introduced by the Muslim Brotherhood and restored to its elitist character. "Ideological purity" is a sine qua non for any group seeking affiliation. The commitment to an action-oriented, unequivocal rejection of any existing order is the other prerequisite. From North Africa to the Levant, and from Yemen to Iraq, the al Qaeda imprimatur is made available only to groups that satisfy these dual requirements. The Salafist concept of al-wala' wa-l-bara' (allegiance to true Muslims and repudiation of all others), in belief and in practice, is presented as the foundation for a relationship with the al Qaeda leadership and the subsequent authorization of an al Qaeda franchise. And ideological purity serves as the common denominator, ensuring compatible views with limited coordination.
But even rigid literalism is capable of yielding multiple interpretations, and the textual corpus (the Quran and the Sunnah) is frequently nuanced and has tolerant inclinations. To compensate for this potential pitfall, al Qaeda ideologues have instituted a "maximalist" approach that always errs on the side of severity and austerity. Applied to the political realm, maximalism depicts all political players as strategic enemies and identifies religious justifications, however tenuous, for all hostile actions taken against them. Through this "no holds barred" approach, maximalism creates the illusion of an al Qaeda that is centralized and strategically minded.
The career of Abu Musab al Zarqawi in Iraq is an illustration of both the power of the ideology-based model and its pitfalls--from an al Qaeda perspective. Zarqawi, a Jordanian veteran of the Afghan jihad, sought and ultimately received the endorsement of the al Qaeda leadership for his actions in post-Saddam Iraq. He nonetheless preserved operational autonomy, determined the local strategy, and engaged in an effective genocide against Shiite Iraqis. While phrasing his objections in utilitarian terms (and hence preserving the maximalist stance), Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda's second-in-command, cautioned Zarqawi against the harshness of his methods. Zarqawi did not heed the (half-hearted) message. The Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaeda affiliate that emerged as a result of Zarqawi's efforts, later collapsed as a result, mutatis mutandis, of the widespread discontent of its "subjects" against the oppressive and arbitrary measures it implemented in the form of religious and social maximalism. The failure of al Qaeda in Iraq today seems irreversible; even the admission to mistakes and excesses on the part of the Islamic State of Iraq by bin Laden himself could not mitigate the counterproductive effects of its maximalism. The Sunni insurgency in Iraq is not over; it is, however, no longer a tool in the al Qaeda global jihad.
The "surge" of U.S. forces in Iraq enabled the transformation of the popular discontent in Sunni Iraqi society over the al Qaeda presence into an active force that inflicted on the global organization one of several setbacks that are ultimately the result of its dogmatic maximalism. The most important such setback, for the symbolism associated with it, was the apparent failure of the al Qaeda insurgency in Saudi Arabia. A primary supplier of suicide bombers to Iraq, through underground jihadist networks, Saudi Arabia was the ultimate prize sought by al Qaeda, both for its symbolic value as host to the two holiest cities in Islam, Mecca and Medina, and for the ideological affiliation between its clerical establishment and the al Qaeda doctrine.
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