The Saban Center for Middle East Policy held a policy luncheon with Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow at the Saban Center, to discuss his new book, The Search for Al Qaeda. Wendy Chamberlin, President of the Middle East Institute, offered insights on Riedel’s book. Martin Indyk, Saban Center Director, chaired the discussion.
Riedel began his presentation by examining the after-effects of the attacks of 9/11 on al Qaeda and explained the motivations and justifications of the terrorists’ actions.
He then explained the importance of understanding the narrative and thinking of al Qaeda’s senior leadership. The biographies of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and the late Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi offer insight into what Riedel argued is the most important issue for al Qaeda: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Additionally, the profiles outline the present strategy of al Qaeda and help explain the reasoning behind the organization’s particular inspirations.
Riedel went on to outline the three major conclusions drawn from his research. First, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key issue for al Qaeda. According to Riedel, the only way for al Qaeda to rectify the perceived wrongdoings against the Arab world is through the destruction of Israel and the expulsion of the United States and Western forces from the region. For al Qaeda, there can be no peace agreement or bargaining with “infidel” forces. Instead, Israel should be eliminated and an Islamic Caliphate should be created. Second, Pakistan is the central front in the war against al Qaeda. Pakistan has had a complex and complicated history with al Qaeda and its Taliban counterparts over the years. Currently, the senior leadership of al Qaeda uses the tribal regions of Pakistan as their base of operations while simultaneously utilizing strategic attacks to destroy the Pakistani state. Riedel argued that Pakistan is the most important ally of the United States in the fight against al Qaeda. Yet the country poses difficult challenges to cooperation because of its instability. Third, as a movement that follows an extremist version of Sunni Islam, al Qaeda often pits itself against believers of Shiism. Riedel argued that ‘more often than not, [al Qaeda and its sympathizers] are fighting the Shia even as they are battling the West.’ This virtual Sunni-Shia divide, Riedel said, also helps explain why al Qaeda has not relied heavily on the support of Iran. As the prominent Shia power, Iran’s leaders differ drastically in ideology and past cooperation between Iran and al Qaeda has only been out of convenience.
Riedel concluded his presentation with thoughts on how to defeat al Qaeda. He suggested refocusing US efforts on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Riedel argued that through the use of creative diplomacy, the United States can resolve the core issues that have plagued the peace process for years. If there is peace between Israelis and Palestinians, the basis for most, if not all, of al Qaeda’s attacks will be seriously undermined. Riedel also made the case that the United States must flex its political muscle to resolve the Kashmir crisis. The implications of the crisis are paramount to the future of Pakistan and its counterterrorism capabilities. Pakistan’s leadership has concluded that its main enemy is India; consequently, the Pakistani military has funded jihadi groups as means to defeat India. By resolving the conflict between Pakistan and India, the need for these groups is no longer there and Pakistan can refocus on defeating al Qaeda and the Taliban. While Riedel admitted that resolving the Kashmir crisis is a difficult process, the United States should promote discussion and cooperation between the two countries at the very least. On democracy promotion in the Arab-Muslim world, Riedel maintained that the United States has failed to nurture all democratic states or support all democratically elected leaders in the past; thus, this line of policy must be reexamined and refined in order to fully commit to democracy promotion.
Riedel’s final remarks pertained to military action focused on al Qaeda’s senior leadership. By dedicating more military and economic support to Afghanistan, the United States can directly target the Taliban and al Qaeda leadership while simultaneously strengthening the country. These actions should not be unilateral but rather multilateral, involving United States allies as well as NATO.
The fight against al Qaeda can be won, Riedel optimistically concluded. Through the use of smart diplomatic action and effective counterterrorism policy, the United States can defeat its main terrorist nemesis.