Al-Qaida: from centre to periphery

Pablo Policzer Ram Manikkalingam
9 October 2007

More than six years after 11 September 2001, the United States's war against al-Qaida has reached a stalemate. Osama bin Laden remains at large, Al-Qaida has not been defeated, and it has learned how to disperse and survive in response to US military pressures.

Ram Manikkalingam is an advisor to the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and a visiting professor at the University of Amsterdam

Pablo Policzer
is an assistant professor and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Latin American politics at the University of Calgary

This article is based on a longer paper, "Al Qaeda, Armed Groups, and the Paradox of Engagement", published in September 2007 by the Transnational and Non-State Armed Groups Project web portal, operated by the programme on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard University

See also the authors' "Talk or Fight? Al Qaeda from Centre to Periphery", Oslo Forum (2007)

This stalemate has prompted two responses.

First, some (mainly in the west) argue that to win the war on terror, the US must fight smarter against al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. They suggest the current US approach, especially on Iraq, has multiplied the number of enemies against it, weakened its position in the world, and undermined its own citizens' security. To win the war on terror, the US should get out of Iraq, and refocus militarily on bin Laden on the Afghan-Pakistani border (examples of this kind of argument include Barry Posen, "The Struggle against Terrorism: Grand Strategy, Strategy, and Tactics," International Security 26/3 [2002], and Stephen W Van Evera, "Assessing U.S. Strategy in the War on Terror", Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 607/1 [2006]).

Second, others (mainly in the Muslim world) argue that instead of fighting al-Qaida, the US should consider political negotiations with it. They reason that al-Qaida is not an apocalyptic cult, but a political actor with clear demands. Some of these - such as ending the US's support of Israel, let alone completely withdrawing from the middle east - may be incompatible with the US's policies and interests. Yet they believe that because al-Qaida pursues political goals, it is possible at least to consider negotiating with it. They argue that this political approach offers more promise than the present military stand-off (see, for example, Mohammad‐Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, "Non‐Linearity of Engagement: Transnational Armed Groups, International Law, and the Conflict between Al Qaeda and the United States", Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research, Harvard University [2005]. More recently, this author notes that bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri exercise less control over the organisation than in the past; see Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, "Towards the real al-Qaida", 10 September 2007).

openDemocracy writers assess al-Qaida's character and strategy:

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: time on its side" (4 June 2007)

Johnny Ryan, "The militant Islamist call and its echo" (1 August 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) While these responses appear to contradict each other, they share a common premise: that the US and its allies should focus their attention primarily on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, whether to defeat it by force or to engage it politically. Yet the growing number of recent reports about the ambiguous, or even strained, relations between the centre of al-Qaida and the groups that have formed along its periphery, calls into question al-Qaida's ability to clearly command and control its affiliates, making this premise untenable.

In contrast to both these positions, we argue that al-Qaida's dispersion needs to be taken more seriously as a political, military, and organisational challenge. Paradoxically, the very dispersal strategies that have allowed the centre of al-Qaida to survive by making it harder to target militarily, also make it easier to bypass politically. The same adaptation that has led to the calls for talking to al-Qaida - its flexibility and resilience - is also the strongest reason for not doing so at its centre. Engagement should take place: but at the periphery, not at the centre.

Devolving engagement in this way requires reinterpreting the conflict between al-Qaida and western militaries. It is not a single global clash between Islam and the west, but a series of overlapping local, national, and regional conflicts with multiple players, which may or may not be interconnected.

Building on this notion, the focus of our attentions should not be a single al-Qaida centre, albeit with many peripheries. It should be multiple centres and peripheries, with varying degrees of attachment to al-Qaida and to Osama bin Laden. Each of the numerous armed groups seen to be associated with al- Qaida - such as the Taliban, Abu Sayyaf or even al-Qaida in Mesopotamia - can be distinguished from the centre of al-Qaida. In each case, and depending on the shifting military and political contexts, the group's goals may range from building clinics to treat the sick, to establishing a global caliphate to convert unbelievers. In some cases, these goals are aligned with those of Osama bin Laden and the centre of al-Qaida, and in many cases they are not (for more on the tensions between al-Qaida and the groups at its periphery, see Audrey Kurth Cronin, "Al-Qaida: end of the beginning", 11 September 2007).

Instead of the high politics and hard force that some observers suggest should characterise the engagement with al-Qaida, once the peripheries are taken seriously engagement looks quite different. It allows a range of actors - states, international organisations, security services, NGOs, and even businesses - to play a role. There is of course no reason not to engage the centre as well - politically and militarily - but in a decentralised organisation the peripheries matter. This kind of engagement may or may not involve issues such as removing US troops from the middle east, or curbing US support of Israel and/or its occupation of Palestine. But it is likely to involve more mundane local issues, which matter to peoples at the peripheries, such as policing and security, healthcare, education, and jobs.

Dealing with al-Qaida is a complex challenge. What is beyond doubt is that the time has come to shift our focus away from the centre of al-Qaida to its peripheries.

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