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.