There are Many Ways to Exploit Al-Qaeda’s Vulnerabilities

Anouar Boukhars
Anouar Boukhars
Anouar Boukhars Former Brookings Expert

June 22, 2009

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

America’s global war on Al-Qaeda has dragged into its eighth year and the results are still not conclusive. Al-Qaeda, an amorphous movement, incurred serious setbacks in Iraq and Saudi Arabia but is regaining strength in Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan and making inroads into other swathes of under-governed areas in Yemen and the Western Sahara desert. Its global brand has also suffered damaging ideological backlash from repented violent extremists, prominent religious leaders and an overwhelming number of Muslims who feel horrified by the movement’s wanton killings; but a small number of angry young Algerians, Moroccans and other Muslims are still attracted to Al-Qaeda’s powerful narrative that Islam is under attack by US militarism and Israeli aggression.

The election of Barack Obama, with his Muslim roots, has also challenged Al-Qaeda’s core message. The new US president has distanced himself from the dogmatic, bellicose operating environment that characterized his predecessor’s foreign policy. He has so far shown pragmatism, realism and an acute understanding of the causes that fuel the trail of violent militancy. The latter can never be defeated by the spectacular displays of American military force. The imposition of a regime of shock and awe has failed to affect the will and perception of Al-Qaeda and its like-minded groups worldwide. This of course does not mean that violent militants should not be denied sanctuary. Neutralizing Al-Qaeda’s top leaders and strengthening international sharing of intelligence is necessary as is the US temporary military presence in Afghanistan.

Ultimately, the struggle against Al-Qaeda can be won only if its compelling message and ideology are undercut. As long as the Palestinian predicament drags on and America’s military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan persists, Al-Qaeda will continue to garner widespread Muslim sympathy for its claim to speak on behalf of the “weak and oppressed.” Occupation of Muslim lands, as America’s National Intelligence Assessment on terrorism concluded in the context of the Iraq occupation, breeds “a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world” and cultivates “supporters for the global jihadist movement.” For so long, violent radicalism was believed to be generated by religious orientations, not political ones. Islam was seen as the root cause of terror and the breeder of a subculture of rebellion and violence. The Bush administration and its intellectual backers in Washington embraced confrontational militarism and refused to address the grievances that fuel the fires of radicalism, rebellion and violent resistance.

Eventually, Al-Qaeda is doomed to disappear. Its excesses as exemplified by its intransigence, indiscriminate brutality and dismissal of politics as a perversion of religion automatically banish it to the fringes of Muslim societies. Al-Qaeda’s hostility to powerful Islamist movements like Hamas and Hizbullah, which derive their powers from the ballot box, deprives it from broadening its alliances. Its categorical opposition to democracy alienates it from the overwhelming majority of Muslims who support such a system whenever given the opportunity. Such are the many vulnerabilities of Al-Qaeda and its loose groups of die-hard followers.

In Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Al-Qaeda’s weaknesses have already been exposed. A number of surveys have shown support for Al-Qaeda and suicide bombings dropping significantly. In Morocco, major figures and theoreticians of the Jihadist Salafism like Mohammad Rafiki, alias Abou Hafs, Mohammad Fizazi and Hassan Kettani have publicly renounced terrorism and denounced its perpetrators as non-Muslim. In Egypt, one of Al-Qaeda’s founders, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, who goes by the nom de guerre Dr. Fadl, launched a fierce ideological attack against Osama bin Laden. Saudi Arabia has also seen its share of religious and intellectual revolt against Al-Qaeda’s radicalization and methods.

Obama’s policies are geared toward capitalizing on and accelerating Al-Qaeda’s internal divisions and continuing loss of Muslim support. His emphasis on tackling the main grievances that Al-Qaeda thrives on is a good starting point. Of course, it will all depend on policy execution but the president’s emphasis on reasonable negotiations with Iran rather than belligerent militarism and his early engagement in the Arab-Israel conflict have certainly muddied Al-Qaeda’s audio, video, and internet messages, at least for now. The new administration’s military and increased economic aid to Afghanistan, Pakistan and other weak governments is also critical in helping them extend their writ over large swathes of their ungovernable and under-governed areas. The president and his team seem to understand that Al-Qaeda can only be defeated if its narrative is shattered and legitimate Muslim governments are empowered to provide for their citizens and police their borders.

America’s support for former Pakistani military leader Pervez Musharraf was short-sighted. Authoritarian regimes might deliver short-term stability but in the long-run they create the seeds of political radicalism. Democracy might not always produce results to the liking of the United States, but it does have a moderating effect on those who use religion as a reference (Morocco’s Islamists) or ideology (Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt). Islamists that are constantly harassed or thwarted by governments supported by the United States will adopt uncompromising ideological positions. Some, as have already happened in Egypt and also Algeria, will ultimately resort to violence locally, then internationally.

Obama’s much anticipated Cairo speech to the Muslim world will be carefully watched by tens of millions of people in the Middle East and beyond. From Morocco to Indonesia, Arabs and Muslims are hopeful that the new president will deliver on his promises to tackle the main root cause of terrorism: Occupation of Arab/Muslim land.

“Occupation breeds terror,” declared former Israeli soldier Seth Freedman. “Every incursion, every raid, every curfew and collective punishment, drives the moderates into the welcoming arms of the militants, who promise to return their honor and their wounded pride by fighting the oppressors’ fire with fire of their own.” Prodding Arab regimes towards political reform that is inclusive of Islamist participation is the second most effective antidote to political radicalism.