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Bin Ladenism on the Decline

A new study by American intelligence agencies, “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World,” covers the global landscape, including a significant section on terrorism and al Qaeda.

According to the Global Trends report, “As long as turmoil and societal disruptions, generated by resource scarcities, poor governance, ethnic rivalries, or environmental degradation, increase in the Middle East, conditions will remain conducive to the spread of radicalism and insurgencies.” But it goes on to say this:

Al-Qa’ida’s weaknesses-unachievable strategic objectives, inability to attract broad-based support, and self-destructive actions-might cause it to decay sooner than many people think… Despite sympathy for some of its ideas and the rise of affiliated groups in places like the Mahgreb, al-Qa’ida has not achieved broad support in the Islamic World. Its harsh pan-Islamist ideology and policies appeal only to a tiny minority of Muslims.

According to one study of public attitudes toward extremist violence, there is little support for al-Qa’ida in any of the countries surveyed-Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. The report also found that majorities in all Arab countries oppose jihadi violence, by any group, on their own soil.

Al-Qa’ida is alienating former Muslim supporters by killing Muslims in its attacks…

The roughly 40-year cycle of terrorist waves suggests that the dreams that inspire terrorist group members’ fathers to join particular groups are not attractive to succeeding generations. The prospect that al-Qa’ida will be among the small number of groups able to transcend the generational timeline is not high, given its harsh ideology, unachievable strategic objectives, and inability to become a mass movement.

In relying almost exclusively on terrorism as a means to achieve its strategic objectives … al-Qa’ida is using a stratagem that rarely is successful… support for terrorist networks in the Muslim world appears to be declining. To succeed, terrorist groups need a large number of passive supporters who sympathize with terrorists’ objectives. Reducing those numbers is key to lessening the appeal within societies. Analysis of terrorists’ communications among themselves indicates they see themselves in a “losing” battle with Western materialistic values. Surveys and analysis of jihadist websites indicate growing popular dissatisfaction with civilian casualties-particularly of fellow Muslims-caused by terrorist actions.

While conceding that the global Islamic terrorist movement will outlast al Qaeda as a group, Mathew J. Burrows, head of long-range analysis in the office of the director of national intelligence and the report’s lead author, says, “The appeal of terrorism is waning.”

This is something some of us have been writing about for a while now, given that it is among the most important and under-reported developments in recent years. The U.S. has made tremendous progress in what was the core commitment of the Bush presidency: to confront and eventually defeat global jihadists. And that progress has occurred during, and in important respects because of, the Iraq war.

Not all that long ago, it was the overwhelming consensus of foreign policy experts that the Iraq war was a massive strategic mistake, that it had served as the greatest recruiting mechanism for jihadists possible, and that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda were much stronger because of the enormous errors of the Bush Administration.

This view was embodied in the words of Peter Bergen, an author and CNN terrorism expert. In October 2007, he wrote a lead article for the New Republic, entitled “War of Error: How Osama bin Laden Beat George W. Bush.” In it, Bergen wrote,

America’s most formidable foe – once practically dead – is back. This is one of the most historically significant legacies of President Bush. At nearly every turn, he has made the wrong strategic choices in battling Al Qaeda. To understand the terror network’s resurgence – and its continued ability to harm us – we need to reexamine all the ways in which the administration has failed to crush it. . . . If, as the president explained in a speech [in 2006], the United States is today engaged “in the decisive ideological struggle of the twenty-first century,” right now we are on the losing side of the battle of ideas.

It turns out Bergen, and most of the national security establishment, was exactly wrong. It is true, of course, that the repudiation of al Qaeda has been driven in large measure by its own savagery. But it is just as true that America’s relentless pressure on al Qaeda and the global jihadist network has taken a terrible toll on them. The “Anbar Awakening” is a perfect example. It was an organic Sunni uprising against al Qaeda which received decisive assistance from the United States. And if we had followed the counsel of most people in opposing the “surge” and prematurely withdrawing from Iraq, it would have led to the most important victory for jihadists in their history. Its consequences would have been catastrophic.

The way to win the “war of ideas” against al Qaeda and global jihadists has always been to win the actual war itself, to defeat them on the battlefield of their own choosing. For a movement which felt it had God’s mandate, which depended on the appearance of strength, and which fed off the appearance of American weakness, the Iraq war was pivotal. And there is now no question that al Qaeda has been decimated in Iraq, and that defeat has had radiating consequences throughout the world.

We ought not make the mistake of Bergen and others by making premature (and in his case, massively ill-informed) judgments. The struggle against al Qaeda and militant Islam is not over. We face a difficult task in (among other places) Afghanistan and Pakistan. But it is fair to say that as the Bush presidency comes to a close, America is in much stronger shape than bin Laden and al Qaeda. The appeal of bin Ladenism is waning — and if you had predicted such a thing in the days immediately after 9/11, you would have said that George W. Bush would succeed in achieving the fundamental purpose of his presidency. And in fact, he has.



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