7 years after 9/11, al-Qaida is in Disarray

Jerusalem Post- 11/09/2008

# Seven years after September 11, 2001, al-Qaida as an organization is seen by many analysts to be in some disarray. One prominent observer of the network depicts it as having been reduced to a core of 200-300 operatives. Yet al-Qaida as an idea and as a franchise remains healthy and is still a threat. Responding to this changed reality, the al-Qaida leadership is investing increased resources in propaganda, with the intention of radicalizing large numbers of young Muslims throughout the world. And these efforts are proving successful, though it is doubtful whether this success will produce real-world political benefits for al-Qaida.

The 9/11 attacks were meant to draw the United States into the Middle East, opening an extended war of attrition. Al-Qaida’s model for this was the jihadis’ war against the USSR in Afghanistan. Those attacks succeeded in drawing the US in. However, the score card so far is largely against the Sunni jihadists. Consider: Between 2003-2006, al-Qaida attempted to launch an insurgency in Saudi Arabia. This period saw a series of attacks on Western facilities such as the US Consulate in Jeddah and the headquarters of the Vinnell Corporation. Individual westerners were targeted by gunmen. The Abqaiq oil processing facility (through which 60 percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil passes) was attacked. But the Saudi response proved effective. By the end of 2006, over 260 terrorists had been killed or captured. All but one of the 26 men on the kingdom’s most-wanted list were dead or in jail, and the country was quiet. The attempt to spark an insurgency which could have made al-Qaida a serious contender for power in Saudi Arabia was a failure.

A wave of terror attacks in Egyptian-controlled Sinai took place in the years following 9/11. These included the most bloody act of terror in modern Egypt’s history – the bombings in Sharm e-Sheikh in July 2005. Yet the authorities have succeeded so far in isolating the threat in Sinai. The jihadis are not broken in Egypt. But the idea of al-Qaida posing a threat to the regime in the birthplace of Ayman al-Zawahiri today seems fanciful.

In Jordan, al-Qaida activities peaked in 2004-5, with the ambitious attempt to bomb the General Intelligence Department Headquarters in Amman. Three bloody bombings of civilians at hotels in the capital in 2005 succeeded in awakening a wave of revulsion toward al-Qaida, and the Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

A similar wave of alienation and disgust among ordinary Iraqi Sunnis has set back al-Qaida’s fortunes in that country. The emergence of the “Sahwa” (awakening) movement, which has contributed to the sharp decline in attacks on US forces, derived in part from the excesses committed by non-Iraqi al-Qaida fighters. The violent attempt by al-Qaida men to impose their own brand of Islamic norms on local Sunnis resulted in alienation and failure. All of these examples must be placed in context. Al-Qaida has not been defeated. It is down, but not out. It maintains a strong infrastructure in the lawless, tribal region of northwest Pakistan. From there, al-Qaida operatives are able to aid the resurgent Taliban in attacking NATO forces in Afghanistan. From this heartland, the network is able also to continue to offer training and instruction to would-be jihadis from the west and elsewhere.

The potentially disastrous consequences of this have been revealed in the details of the foiled plot to detonate liquid explosives in seven airliners over the Atlantic in July, 2006. And the network has, of course, succeeded in committing a series of atrocities in the west since 9/11. But al-Qaida is not simply an entity committed to inflicting personal tragedy on as many individuals and families as it can manage. Rather, it lays claim to a political strategy. As an international network committed to bringing down governments as a stage in the creation of a global Caliphate, al-Qaida has achieved little of tangible weight in the last seven years. As an idea and a franchise, by contrast, al-Qaida and its brand of Salafi Islam have flourished. This has been reflected in the proliferation of “copycat” groups laying claim to the feared name of al-Qaida from southeast Asia via the Gaza Strip and North Africa to the capital cities of western Europe. This process has not taken place by chance, but is partly the result of the accelerated propaganda efforts undertaken by the Pakistan-based al-Qaida leadership in recent years. In 2001, al-Qaida’s media communications abilities were sparse and primitive.

Today, there are reckoned to be around 4,500 overtly pro al-Qaida Web sites promoting the group’s messages. The network is adept at producing sophisticated videos, including footage of terror attacks, which are then disseminated worldwide. The result is that the “brand names” of bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and al-Qaida remain the most recognizable symbols of Sunni jihadi Islam in the world. And movements inspired by them – such as the Jaish al-Islam and Jaish al-Umma in Gaza, the Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon and many others – continue to emerge. Al-Qaida has combined sometimes nightmarishly effective tactical ability with a somewhat other-worldly, incoherent political and strategic program. Political Islam is transforming the politics of the Middle East, and represents a key strategic challenge to the west. But the particular version of it represented by the perpetrators of 9/11 is today more of a murderous side-show than the nerve center of the future Caliphate which it likes to imagine itself.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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