Al-Qaida at 20: Is the Movement Destined To Fail?

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

August 12, 2008

Even as he gloats over al-Qaida’s many successes in the past 20 years, Osama Bin Laden may feel a sense of foreboding. For even as al-Qaida has gone from an obscure organization with a few dozen adherents to a global brand with name recognition most corporations would envy, it faces challenges on almost every front.

Al-Qaida’s appeal, while far stronger than in 1988, is less compelling to many Muslims than it was during the early days of the Iraq war. In the last few years, the organization has suffered withering criticism from once-supportive preachers and theologians in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. Lawrence Wright reports that “radical Islam is confronting a rebellion within its ranks, one that Zawahiri and the leaders of Al Qaeda are poorly equipped to respond to.” Most prominently, the theologian known as Dr. Fadl has excoriated al-Qaida for what he feels are a host of practical and ideological errors. Fadl once led Egyptian Islamic Jihad (many members of that organization are now part of al-Qaida), and jihadists often used his writings to justify their mayhem. Salman al-Auda has also condemned al-Qaida. Al-Auda is a Saudi sheikh who gained wide popularity for his criticism of the Saudi royal family’s ties to the United States. Bin Laden himself even lauded him. These preachers’ rejection of al-Qaida and its violence, particularly its murder of innocents, was a body blow. Al-Qaida’s leaders correctly point out that Fadl is in jail and al-Auda is on the Saudi payroll, but the credibility of these voices—and the fact that they are not alone—makes them hard to ignore.

Priorities also divide the movement. For some, the key struggle is against Israel or moderate Arab governments in the Middle East while for other jihadists, the Iraq war has heightened sectarian tensions and made Shiite Muslims the main enemy. To cite one example, for many years Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who eventually led al-Qaida in Iraq, had refused to join al-Qaida because he wanted to struggle against the Hashemites in Jordan and the Shiites in Iraq rather than fight America. One of the movement’s strengths is that it has encompassed a wide range of grievances, but that strength can easily prove a weakness if the movement splits over what to do next.

The movement also risks dividing itself over the question of taqfir: declaring another Muslim to be a legitimate target for violence because he is an apostate. All extreme movements hate the smallest deviation from the supposed true faith. (Think, for example, of Stalin’s paranoia about Trotsky.) Some jihadists take the view that you are either with them or against them—a failure to join the fight makes you an apostate and thus deserving of violence. In Algeria in the 1990s and in Iraq after the movement appeared ascendant in 2005, the jihad turned on itself and began to slaughter individuals within the Sunni Muslim community whom jihadists felt were insufficiently pious. In both cases, public opinion decisively turned against them.

Al-Qaida’s strength in finding supportive governments or carving out niches in which to act is matched by the transient nature of these havens. The influence of Sudan’s Hasan al-Turabi steadily declined in the late 1990s, and since then he has been in and out of jail. Sudan today is a military dictatorship, not an Islamic state. The blow in Afghanistan was even more severe, as Bin Laden had proclaimed Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, to be the true commander of the faithful. It was al-Qaida’s attack on 9/11, however, that led to Omar’s overthrow. Puritanical Muslims who believed that Afghanistan was the first true Islamist state were livid.

Nor has jihad flowered in the many places where it appeared to be taking root after 1988. Looking around the world in 1995, Bin Laden must have felt optimistic. Jihadists had fought in Bosnia, and jihadist insurgencies appeared to be gaining momentum in Chechnya, Egypt, and Algeria. In 2004, Bin Laden probably had hopes for fighters, in addition to those in Iraq, in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. Although terrorist groups remain active in all these countries, they are no longer linked to broader militant movements that threaten to topple the government or destabilize the country. Al-Qaida and its allies can still kill, but the scope of their violence has shrunk, and the regimes are safe. Indeed, the jihadists’ bloody tactics and attempts to impose rigorous Islamic law in the fiefdoms they temporarily carved out drove local Muslims into the arms of area governments, no matter how brutal, corrupt, and repressive.

The losses in Iraq since 2006 are a particular setback for the movement. Bin Laden made Iraq a poster child of jihad and for years delighted in bleeding the United States as his movement there became more powerful. In the last two years, however, U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies have dealt a series of hard, perhaps even mortal, blows to al-Qaida of Iraq. Its fighters are wiped out or dispirited, and its desire to use Iraq as a base for expanding influence elsewhere in the region, a nightmare that appeared to be beginning when Iraq-based operatives carried out devastating 2005 hotel bombings in Jordan, appears unlikely to materialize anytime soon.

Also devastating to al-Qaida is the global manhunt for its leaders and supporters. Pakistan is a safe haven, and there are other pockets, including parts of Yemen, where the organization enjoys considerable impunity. Yet a global operation like the 9/11 plot, which involved members in Afghanistan and Pakistan but also in Germany, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and other locales, would be exceptionally risky today since the intelligence services in all these places are far more focused on disrupting al-Qaida than they were before September 2001. The daily arrests and setbacks these services inflict on al-Qaida rarely make headlines, but they are perhaps the most important success in the U.S. war on terrorism.

To understand the scope of al-Qaida’s problems, it is useful to contrast it with truly successful terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Hamas governs Gaza, even if the world refuses to recognize this for diplomatic reasons, and Hezbollah is the strongest actor in Lebanon, where it enjoys a veto over government policy. Al-Qaida controls only remote parts of the Muslim world, such as tribal areas in Pakistan, and even there it relies heavily on local warlords. Hezbollah and Hamas have vast social networks while al-Qaida’s influence is expressed almost entirely through violence. Political necessity and social networks hem in Hamas and Hezbollah and make them less operationally agile—but both organizations gladly sacrificed such flexibility in their quest for power. Al-Qaida, in contrast, can sow unrest, but the harvest it reaps does not advance its ultimate goals and often backfires.

Declaring whether al-Qaida is “winning” or “losing” depends on the criteria used for judgment. In the past 20 years, Bin Laden has built a formidable terrorist machine that remains capable of launching lethal attacks around the world and disrupting life in several vital countries, particularly Pakistan. Yet at the same time, the movement is bedeviled by internal divisions and has repeatedly found that its more ambitious goals of seizing power and establishing an Islamic state have been set back.

Osama Bin Laden can look back at the past 20 years with pride, but also with trepidation. He has not lost, but his track record so far suggests that more substantial victories are likely to remain elusive.