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Why the CIA Director Is Wrong: Rethinking Al-Qaeda

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.