Rubin Reports

Why the CIA Director Is Wrong: Rethinking Al-Qaeda

It’s time, a dozen years after September 11 and following Islamist coups in the Gaza Strip, Islamist electoral revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Turkey, and a probable Islamist victory during the next year in Syria, to completely rethink our view of al-Qaeda.

First, al-Qaeda wasn’t involved in any of these events nor in several other big developments we could list. Second, al-Qaeda hasn’t disappeared, contrary to the Obama administration’s claims. And third, the American homeland is now demonstrably well-protected from terrorist attacks, so consequently while success on this front remains important, it need not be the top U.S. strategic priority.

So let me propose a new way of looking at things: aside from being a problem of counterterrorism — that is, of law enforcement — al-Qaeda is no longer important. That doesn’t mean al-Qaida should be ignored. Yet combating it is relatively manageable.

It certainly isn’t strategically important, nor is it important for the biggest and most essential U.S. national interests. 

This alternative view is especially significant at a moment when the new CIA director is the father — and the president, secretary of State, and secretary of Defense the avid fans — of a theory that places al-Qaeda at the center of the world stage. Basically, their theory goes like this:

Al-Qaeda is terribly evil and a threat to America. It must be fought. But all Islamism — except for al-Qaeda — can be moderated and won over by a sympathetic U.S. policy. The Islamists are the best people to handle and defeat al-Qaeda, and by giving the people what they want — Islam running the society — their desire to commit terrorism or to attack America will subside. After all, if the United States shows itself to be Islamism’s best friend, why should Islamists be angry at it?

This strategy began with Obama’s Cairo speech, which was a profoundly pro-Islamist statement, and that’s why he invited Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders to sit in the front row.

In other words: put your enemies in power, and they are no longer your enemies. Moreover, once Islamists get into power they will get entangled in party politics, paving roads, running schools, and doing all the other things that governments do. They will lose their radicalism and certainly stop using violence.

There’s a lot to say against this theory.

It either hasn’t worked historically on other radical ideologies — Nazism, Fascism, Communism — or at least only after a very long time in power (including millions of victims) often mixed in with military debacles. It can be said to have worked with radical Arab nationalism, but only after 50 years and multiple military defeats. This was also the precise theory that underpinned the 1990’s Oslo peace process and assumptions about Yasir Arafat settling down to become a great and practical statesman. And that didn’t work either.

Moreover, it ignores the fundamental extremism, anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, anti-Christian, and anti-women tenets of Islamist philosophy, which are rooted in reasonable (but not the only possible) interpretations of Islam. And it also leaves out the power gained once radicals take over institutions. Sure, they’ll be running the schools, but that doesn’t mean they will become entangled in planning curricula so much as to persuade people they should grow up to be radical Islamists and jihad warriors.

Finally, all Islamists want Islamist rule and the application of Sharia as the law. Some will talk and do nothing; others will talk and organize; others will use violence, and among those who organize there are those who can seize state power — in Muslim majority countries — and those that will fail. The Muslim Brotherhood is brilliant tactically; al-Qaeda has only one note in its orchestra — endless struggle and terrorism rather than political maneuvering and building a mass base.

Usually, as you can see, when I talk about this issue I stress the non-al-Qaeda side of the equation. But it’s time to reanalyze al-Qaeda also.

The importance of al-Qaeda in the history of Islamism is actually more marginal than it might seem from the massive study and headlines it generated. Al-Qaeda had three innovations of importance:

— That the movement be international, fighting simultaneously on all fronts. While the Muslim Brotherhood had been an international group, it had a limited number of branches, only four of real significance. However, this only succeeded because the organization — especially after the U.S. destruction of the center in Afghanistan, and long before Osama bin Laden’s assassination — was so loose. Basically, local groups could simply affiliate with al-Qaeda without being its actual creation. Being active everywhere and not concentrating one’s forces is a formula for survival, but also a recipe for ultimate defeat.

— That it would make the West and particularly the United States the main target of attack, most notably in the September 11, 2001 assault. This point, however, became less salient once September 11 happened. What are you going to do for an encore? Tighter Western security made repeating the feat more difficult. Moreover, it became possible for al-Qaeda to operate in Muslim-majority countries. As a factor in Western psychology and policy, then, al-Qaeda’s focus on the West remained hugely important, but as a political strategy it was largely abandoned except for scattered “reminder” attack attempts. Today, al-Qaeda is mainly attacking rivals in Yemen, Somalia, and Syria. Even in Iraq the main target wasn’t the United States itself.  

— That the movement would focus on one activity, terrorist attacks, and try to carry out a “permanent revolution.” In other words, it was always the right time to wage armed struggle, and that battle wouldn’t stop until the movement was wiped out. Other, smaller groups had taken that road in Egypt but had not lasted very long before being destroyed by the government. Understandably, this approach was not a great revolutionary strategy, especially against more sophisticated groups that built mass bases and knew how to change gears, especially the Muslim Brotherhood and even other Salafist groups.

So while Egypt had an Islamist revolution, it was quite different from the one envisioned by the 1990’s Salafists or by the al-Qaeda supporters. Indeed, it was a revolution that — contrary to the 1990’s revolutionaries — was made with the backing of the army, and contrary to the al-Qaeda revolutionaries, was also made with the backing of the United States. The same point applies to Syria and Tunisia, as well as, in a different way, to Turkey, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip.  

Of course, once the regime is overthrown and elections are held, terrorism is no longer needed. You don’t have to raid police stations for guns if you control the military; you don’t have to kill oppositionists with bombs when you can set the police force on them; you don’t need to rob banks to raise funds when you have the keys to the national treasury.

And you don’t need to use terrorism to overthrow the regime if you have already overthrown the regime. Indeed, you don’t need to use terrorism against the regime if you are the regime. Terror, Brennan says, is merely a tactic. He’s right. It is a way of reaching a goal and that goal is seizing state power, fundamentally transforming the society, and using that power to battle U.S. influence, to subvert the remaining non-Islamist regimes, and to try to wipe out Israel.

Consider this historical analogy. Once Hitler took power he dismantled the storm troopers, even killing their leaders, because he didn’t need them any more. The Bolsheviks wiped out the anarchists and the Social Revolutionary Party which had committed so much terrorism in earlier years. Lenin’s own brother was a terrorist who was executed by the Czarist regime. When Lenin took power, terrorism of the old type disappeared. There was only, as in Nazi Germany, state repression.

And state repression, according to the way the Obama administration sees things, is real progress. 

The Muslim Brotherhood goes nowhere near that far. The Salafist groups are still quite useful for indoctrinating citizens and intimidating opponents. When you want Christians taught a lesson, women put down, an embassy stormed, or an Islamist constitution passed, the Salafists provide wonderful and when necessary deniable service.

Here is an important principle in studying the politics of this contemporary era: violence (including terrorism) is not the main measure of radicalism. Instead, the way to judge the extremism of a group is the organization’s ideology, goals, and seriousness in seeking total victory. Strategic and tactical flexibility should be taken into account, but do not mitigate the threat posed by the objective toward which any political force is striving.

Finally, the bottom line is different from what both sides of the debate have claimed: ironically, the United States has a counterterrorist policy, but it does not have a national security strategy.

It has a way of reducing anti-American terrorism — let or even help Islamists seize power — but does not realize that anti-American regimes are far more dangerous than a bunch of guys in caves.

If terrorism was ever merely a law enforcement issue, that is certainly true today in terms of al-Qaeda. Instead, what the Obama administration has done is like trying to reduce crime by turning over cities to the Mafia, letting it make the laws and run the police and court systems.