Al-Qaida today: a movement at the crossroads

About the author
Fawaz A Gerges is a professor of the international relations of the middle east at the London School of Economics and director of the LSE's Middle East Centre. Among his books are America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures or Clash of Interests? (Cambridge University Press, 1999); Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy (Harcourt Press, 2006); The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global(Cambridge University Press, 2005); and The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda (Oxford University Press, 2011)

If you wonder what has happened to al-Qaida, follow the trail of Arab and Muslim public opinion, and you'll get a clear picture of its massive crisis of authority and legitimacy.

The balance of forces in the world of Islam has shifted dramatically against al-Qaida's global jihad and its local manifestations. Fawaz A Gerges holds the Christian A Johnson chair in Arab and Muslim politics at Sarah Lawrence University, New York. Among his books are America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures or Clash of Interests? (Cambridge University Press, 1999), Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy (Harcourt Press, 2006), and The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Now, more and more Muslims view al-Qaida through a prism that focuses on the monstrosity of killing of non-combatants in general, not just Muslim civilians. Recent opinion surveys and my own field-research confirm that an overwhelming majority of Muslims are more than just unsympathetic to the ideology of Osama bin Laden and his followers; they place the blame squarely at his feet for the harm he has caused to the image of Islam and the damage his movement has wrought within Muslim societies. 

Despite their constant incitement and pleading, bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahari, face a serious shortage of skilled recruits in the Arab heartland. This is another by-product of their deepening crisis of authority and legitimacy. The new trend speaks volumes about the moral discrediting of al-Qaida in the eyes of Muslims and the failure of the global jihad in general.

A global trend

The evidence of recent public surveys and opinion-polls is revealing of these trends. Here are six examples:

* Gallup conducted tens of thousands of hour-long, face-to-face interviews with residents of more than thirty-five predominantly Muslim countries between 2001 and 2007. It found that - contrary to the prevailing perception in the west that the actions of al-Qaida enjoy wide support in the Muslim world - more than 90% of respondents condemned the killing of non-combatants on religious and humanitarian grounds

* The not-for-profit group Terror Free Tomorrow carried out a public-opinion survey seeking to establish why people support or oppose extremism; it found that fewer than 10% of Saudis had a favourable opinion of al-Qaida, and 88% approved of the Saudi authorities pursuing al-Qaida operatives

* In Pakistan, despite the recent rise in the Taliban's influence, surveys of public opinion do not bode well for al-Qaida and its allies. A poll conducted by Terror Free Tomorrow in Pakistan in January 2008 tested support for al-Qaida, the Taliban, other militant Islamist groups and Osama bin Laden himself, and found a recent drop by half. In August 2007, 33% of Pakistanis expressed support for al-Qaida; 38% supported the Taliban. By January 2008, al-Qaida's support had dropped to 18%, the Taliban's to 19%. When asked if they would vote for al-Qaida, just 1% of Pakistanis polled answered in the affirmative. The Taliban had the support of 3% of those polled  

* Pew surveys in 2008 show that in a range of countries - Jordan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Lebanon, and Bangladesh - there have been substantial declines in the percentages saying suicide-bombings and other forms of violence against civilian targets can be justified to defend Islam against its enemies. Wide majorities say such attacks are, at most, rarely acceptable

The shift has been especially dramatic in Jordan, where 29% of Jordanians are recorded as viewing suicide-attacks as often or sometimes justified (down from 57% in May 2005). In the largest majority-Muslim nation, Indonesia, 74% of respondents agree that terrorist attacks are "never justified" (a substantial decline from the 41% level to which support had risen in March 2004); in Pakistan, that figure is 86%; in Bangladesh, 81%; and in Iran, 80%

(These figures may be compared with a recent study that shows only 46% of Americans think that "bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians" are "never justified", while 24% believe these attacks are "often or sometimes justified")

* A poll conducted in Osama bin Laden's home country of Saudi Arabia in December 2008 shows that his compatriots have dramatically turned against him, his organisation, Saudi volunteers in Iraq, and terrorism in general. Indeed, confidence in bin Laden has fallen in most Muslim countries in recent years Among openDemocracy's many articles on al-Qaida's character and strategy:

Malise Ruthven: "'Born-again' Muslims: cultural schizophrenia" (27 September 2001)

Murat Belge, "Inside the fundamentalist mind" (4 October 2001)

Omar al-Qattan, "Disneyland Islam" (18 October 2002)

Paul Rogers, "The al-Qaida perspective" (9 January 2004)

Faisal Devji, "Spectral brothers: al-Qaida's world wide web" (19 August 2005)

James Howarth, "Al-Qaida, globalisation and Islam" (20 January 2006)

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, "The dividends of asymmetry: al-Qaida's evolving strategy" (18 December 2006)

Paul Rogers, "Al-Qaida's standing" (22 March 2007)

Paul Rogers, "Al-Qaida's fresh horizon" (5 April 2007)

Paul Rogers, "Al-Qaida: time on its side" (4 June 2007)

Johnny Ryan, "The militant Islamist call and its echo" (1 August 2007)

Pablo Policzer & Ram Manikkalingam, "Al-Qaida: from centre to periphery" (9 October 2007)

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, "Towards the real al-Qaida" (10 September 2007)

Audrey Kurth Cronin, "Al-Qaida: end of the beginning" (11 September 2007)

Patrice de Beer, "Versailles to al-Qaida: tunnels of history" (9 November 2007)

Paul Rogers, "Al-Qaida's afterlife" (29 May 2008)

* In Iraq, people of all persuasions unanimously reject the terror tactics of "al-Qaida in Mesopotamia". An ABC News/BBC/NHK poll revealed that all of those surveyed - Sunni and Shi'a alike - found al-Qaida attacks on Iraqi civilians "unacceptable"; 98% rejected the militants' attempts to gain control over areas in which they operated; and 97% opposed their attempts to recruit foreign fighters and bring them to Iraq.

A static voice

Both the loss of public support for al-Qaida's wholesale attacks on civilians and the theological critiques of Osama bin Laden's organisation by prominent clerics and former radical cohorts appear to have inflicted major damage on al-Qaida's capacity to operate. The result has been to exacerbate bin Laden's crisis of legitimacy and authority, and handicapped his efforts to sustain the war against the United States and its western and middle-eastern allies. 

I have met former jihadis and Islamists in many countries (in Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Yemen, the Persian Gulf, Britain, France, Germany, and Spain) who tell me that al-Qaida's gruesome attacks on civilians, particularly in Muslim countries - and the mayhem these wrought - have relegated al-Qaida to the margins of Islamic society, with few allies and insecure sanctuaries. The social and political space that once provided refuge for al-Qaida and its affiliates has shrunk almost to nothing; Sunni Muslims are in the forefront of hunting down such groups in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon, Palestine, and elsewhere. 

Al-Qaida does appear to have strengthened its foothold along Pakistan's tribal border with Afghanistan thanks to its connection with the Taliban in both countries; but it faces insurmountable challenges elsewhere. Al-Qaida's appeal has faded in Indonesia with the demise of the loose affiliate of al-Qaida known as Jemaah Islamiyya. The situation in its historic arena of support - the Arab hinterland - is equally grave; since 2006, Arab opinion has increasingly seen al-Qaida as a movement that promises heaven but delivers death and dust, and in consequence turned against it. 

Indeed, since May 2003 the majority of bin Laden's men (numbering hundreds) in Saudi Arabia - as the leader's birthplace and the religious centre of Islam a pivotal country - have been killed or arrested; this decimated the al-Qaida network and seriously damaged al-Qaida's chances of using Saudi Arabia as a power-base.   

The loss of Muslim public support has direct consequences on al-Qaida's reach and operational capabilities. It means fewer recruits, fewer shelters, and fewer opportunities to strike at enemies. Indeed, the mainstream of Muslim opinion emerges as the most powerful weapon in the fight against al-Qaida (as well as other terror groups).

During Israel's assault on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009, bin Laden sought to harness anger in the region by urging Muslims to rise up. He vowed that his organisation would open "new fronts" against the United States and its partners beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, many Palestinians and Arabs dismissed his call as more harmful to the Palestinian cause and beneficial to their adversaries. 

The evidence suggests that bin Laden and al-Zawahari have been reduced to a static voice and image on television screens and radios. That is not a very effective means of waging a global jihad against the US and its partners.

There is a larger pattern here. The historical experience is that terror groups which alienate their core support-base eventually wither - even if elements of the terrorists themselves remained undefeated. The post-second-world-war history of ultra-leftist terrorism in Europe is a classic case in point. The neo-Marxist political agendas of these small middle-class groups - the Rote Armee Fraktion in Germany, the Brigate Rosse in Italy, Action Directe in France, and others - had hardly any appeal for the citizens that the radicals hoped to mobilise. 

Similarly, the failure of the Islamist armed insurgency against the Egyptian and Algerian regimes in the 1980s and 1990s was owed less to state repression than to the fact that public opinion got fed up with the violence and instability caused by the militants. Ayman al-Zawahiri's memoirs published immediately after 11 September 2001 - Knights Under the Prophet's Banner - acknowledged that fact and advised his cohorts to labour hard to win Muslim hearts and minds. He and his emir, Osama bin Laden, seem to have ignored this very lesson. 

A darker view

The argument in the first part of this article is that al-Qaida has been morally discredited in the world of Islam and faces a massive crisis of authority and legitimacy. This has left the Osama bin Laden group internally and externally besieged. In this second part I consider the argument of many analysts of terrorism who dispute this analysis, questioning or belittling the claim of a debilitating legitimacy crisis and of the substantial erosion of Muslim support for the group. These terrorism experts claim that al-Qaida is ascending, as dangerous as ever, and who see the global jihad as a success story. 

At the heart of the case is the proposition that bin Laden has over two decades  struck at the heart of the greatest power in world history and forced it to get bogged down in two prolonged and costly wars, and in the process established a successful global franchise attracting recruits worldwide. Despite everything that the United States has thrown at al-Qaida, it has not subdued the organisation or put an end to terrorist attacks.   

This darker view of the threat rests more broadly on a two-pronged argument. First, bin Laden's followers may have suffered a setback in Iraq and other Arab countries, but they have gained new ground along Pakistan's northwestern tribal border with Afghanistan. The outcome is an al-Qaida surge in the region, where bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are busy rebuilding their network and welcoming new recruits and plotting new attacks against western targets; the two fugitives have not only escaped capture but are alive and well and in charge of an expanding pool of potential suicide-bombers in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

Second, al-Qaida continues to direct and manage its satellites worldwide; bin Laden and al-Zawahiri need little more than a cellphone (or a messenger) to instruct their followers and select targets.  

What to make of this argument? There is no doubt that al-Qaida has indeed gained limited traction in the vicinity of Pakistan's tribal region next to Afghanistan by virtue of its close collaboration in both countries with the Taliban, who have come to deploy al-Qaida-style suicide-attacks with deadly effect. But the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan is much broader and more complex than the image of al-Qaida pitting a formidable coalition of mainly Pashtun tribesmen against what they see (rightly or wrongly) as a foreign threat to their identity and way of life.

This view couples an overestimation of the influence of al-Qaida with a simplification of the background of this regional war. It is clear, for example, that al-Qaida is a very small element in this coalition waging the campaign against states and western forces in the region - more of a side-effect, a parasite nourished on lawlessness and instability, than a formative agent.  

For al-Qaida and other foreign extremists to be removed from the Pashtun tribal lands will require a region-wide political settlement that addresses the real grievances of the tribal communities as well as the geo-strategic concerns of Pakistan, Iran, and India. There is also agreement among Pakistan and Afghan observers that a reform of the political and legal system which can integrate the tribal region into the social mainstream and lift the inhabitants out of extreme poverty is crucial to achieve lasting peace.

A negotiated settlement with the Pashtun tribes, which brings the Taliban into the government - painful and difficult though it would be to achieve - would likely result in the expulsion of al-Qaida and other foreign militants from the area. The case of Iraq is instructive. Although Afghanistan and Iraq are different, the challenge is to recognise distinctions and differences between the Pashtun tribes and the Taliban on one hand, and the global jihadis like al-Qaida, on the other, and give the Pashtun tribes a real stake in the political and economic order in ways that would lead them to turn against al-Qaida.

The Pashtun harbour no love for al-Qaida, whose leaders after all "bit the hand" (the Taliban) that hosted and sheltered them in the 1990s. By plotting the 9/11 attacks on the United States from Afghanistan, bin Laden violated the terms of his stay and the assurances he gave to Mullah Omar and his Taliban followers. This brought ruin to the Taliban, and earned.

The current marriage of convenience between Pashtun tribesmen and al- Qaida operatives will hold until the tribes that host bin Laden and his men view them as a liability, as they did immediately after 9/11 when they sold foreign fighters to the US. The key is for the United States not to lump the Pashtun tribes with al-Qaida but instead try to separate them, as it belatedly did in the Anbar region in Iraq. 

It is positive in this respect that the Barack Obama administration is revising its strategy on Afghanistan and explore a more regional approach (including possible talks with Iran); and that it may be looking favourably on the nascent dialogue between the Kabul government and "reconcilable" elements of the Taliban.

A place of safety

Al-Qaida does retain some appeal in Europe, mainly among a few young members of Muslim populations who are particularly alienated, ghettoised and vulnerable to indoctrination. There are, however, indicators that support for al-Qaida's ideology among European Muslims is declining. The evidence includes testimony from those in the security frontline; Peter Clarke (a former head of the London police's anti-terrorism branch) and Armando Spataro (Milan's deputy chief prosecutor and anti-terrorist coordinator) told a conference organised by the New York University Law School in Florence that there were signs of a shift among Muslim and immigrant away from ideas that supported or justified terrorism. 

The weight of evidence also suggests that bin Laden and al-Zawahiri do not exercise effective operational control over their far-flung followers. Rather, al-Qaida's control of its loose network of affiliates seems limited to the organisation's chief of external operations, who often either trains or sanctions freelancers' attacks without consulting the two leaders. The visibility of this position makes its occupant very vulnerable, and several have been swiftly captured or killed. 

Indeed, the notion of al-Qaida being under tightly-knit centralised control presupposes physical links which no longer exists. Although bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are still at large, they are forced to hibernate deeper in the underground and know well the deadly costs of establishing any physical link outside the circle of their inner trusted lieutenants. If an al-Qaida operative uses a cellphone, that amounts to an invitation to killing via a CIA drone. Human carriers, safer than other forms of communication, are the preferred method. But it is extremely hard and risky for bin Laden and al-Zawahiri to micromanage a global war via such agents while they themselves are constantly being pursued.  

Overall, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that defections, internal cleavages, and the decline of Muslim public support have sapped al-Qaida's strength - to the extent that the original menace of al-Qaida is winding down. Since 9/11, al-Qaida has not delivered on its repeated threats to strike inside the United States. Most of its seasoned field-lieutenants have been either captured or killed replaced by unskilled and ineffective operators, and new skilled recruits are hard to come by. 

The movement no longer has a large base of support or a safe haven. Right now, the bin Laden group consists mainly of roving suicide-bands in the valleys and mountains along Pakistan's frontier with Afghanistan. 

Militants of all stripes whom I have interviewed, particularly repentant jihadis, know they are at a crossroads. At home and abroad they are blamed for unleashing the wrath of the United States against the umma (the global Muslim community). Most of their allies have deserted them; clerics and Muslim opinion scorn them. Only a miracle will resuscitate global jihad. The question is whether America's "long war" will lead to circumstances - such as a destabilised Pakistan or an escalation of Arab-Israeli hostilities - that become such a miracle. 

Osama bin Laden succeeded on 11 September 2001, and he may even succeed again. The weakening of al-Qaida does not mean that it is no longer dangerous. Terrorism perpetrated by certain factions will continue over the next decade. But this reality, frightening as it is, should not distract from the self-limiting nature of the al-Qaida challenge. In the final analysis, al-Qaida is more of a security nuisance than a strategic threat. 

Al-Qaida has shown itself to be its own worst enemy and is in a process of self-decomposition. Perhaps its adversaries should follow Napoleon's maxim: "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake."