Past Event

Al-Qa’ida Five Years After the Fall of Qandahar

The Saban Center for Middle East Policy held a policy luncheon with Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow at the Saban Center, to discuss the challenge of al-Qa’ida five years after the fall of Qandahar in December 2001. Martin Indyk, Saban Center Director, chaired the discussion.

Relying mostly on primary sources on al-Qa’ida, Riedel began his presentation by exploring the impact of the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. The loss of the Afghanistan “Emirate” (Islamic state) was, according to Riedel, a major setback for al-Qa’ida in terms of its safe haven for training, propaganda, operational planning and leadership protection. Riedel attributed al-Qa’ida’s defeat in Afghanistan to Pakistan’s decision to desert the Taliban.

Nevertheless, the senior al-Qa’ida and Taliban leadership recovered quickly. By early 2002, Usama Bin Laden, ‘Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mullah Omar and other al-Qa’ida leaders escaped into hiding in the lawless areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where the search for them went cold almost immediately.

Riedel then explored in detail Al Qa’ida’s strategy of developing, along with its Taliban ally, a new base of operations in Pakistan in 2002-3 to resume operations against Western targets in addition to propaganda activities. In Pakistan, Riedel argued, al-Qa’ida’s global terrorist operations became “Pakistanized”. In other words, al-Qa’ida used Pakistan as a ground center for recruitment activities across the world and particularly in the United Kingdom, where a large segment of the disaffected British Muslim community was receptive to al-Qa’ida’s goals. Riedel surveyed the several plots that had links to al-Qa’ida in Pakistan and commented on their successes and failures.

Riedel then analyzed the al-Qa’ida leadership’s strategy to overthrow the Arab regimes in the Gulf and in Egypt. Riedel reviewed the messages Oussama Bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri have issued since February 2003 and described in detail the al-Qa’ida offensives in Saudi Arabia and in Egypt, concluding that al-Qa’ida’s bid to depose the Saudi and Egyptian regimes had failed. But even as it failed in the Saudi Kingdom and Egypt, Riedel warned, al-Qa’ida managed to find new ground in Iraq.

In Iraq, Riedel explained, al-Qa’ida rapidly embarked on developing an operational capability. In the run-up to the American invasion of Iraq in early 2003, thousands of Arab volunteers went to Iraq to answer Usama Bin Laden’s call for an anti-American jihad. Among these volunteers was Usama Bin Laden’s long time associate, Ahmad Fadil al-Khalayilah, also known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Riedel explained the relationship between Zarqawi and al-Qa’ida and analyzed the former’s two-pronged strategy in Iraq of seeking to isolate the American troops by driving out all other forces and of provoking a civil war in Iraq by exploiting the sectarian fault lines of Iraqi society. Such a strategy, according to Riedel, succeeded brilliantly.

Riedel argued that the apparatus al Zarqawi built in Iraq survived his own death in the Summer of 2006. Riedel surveyed the attacks that al-Qa’ida has orchestrated in Iraq after al Zarqawi and made the case that the movement’s Iraq apparatus has developed as a second al-Qa’ida center—in partnership with the old center in Pakistan, but able to operate independently of the ultimate leadership apparatus—giving the organization a base of operations in the very heart of the Arab and Muslim world.

Given its current trajectory, Riedel maintained, al-Qa’ida is well placed to continue to threaten global security in the next five years. The survival of the leadership at the top, its retention of a base of operations along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and its creation of a new base in Iraq, supports this assessment.

Clarifying how al-Qa’ida thrives on failed or failing states, Riedel offered some insights into where al-Qa’ida could be heading in the future. For historical and other reasons, Riedel’s top three potential candidates for new al-Qa’ida bases are Lebanon, Gaza, and Bangladesh.

Riedel also offered a number of policy recommendations for defeating al-Qa’ida. A new grand strategy against al-Qa’ida, according to Riedel, must integrate all aspects of both national and homeland security. As such, diplomacy needs to be harnessed effectively to resolve the quarrels that fuel al-Qa’ida’s recruitment in the Muslim world. Intelligence collection and analysis, Riedel maintained, needs to be more sharply focused to track down the leadership and break up cells before they act. Riedel also added that defenses at home need to be closely integrated with America’s alliance structures abroad. The target of a grand strategy, Riedel concluded needs to be the al-Qa’ida leadership as a decapitating attack would deal a serious setback to the whole movement.

To implement such strategy, Riedel proposed, the United States will have to first enhance its commitment to Afghanistan. The United States, in Riedel’s assessment, should divert troops from Iraq to Afghanistan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) should encourage its partners in the NATO-Mediterranean dialogue to offer troops to help stabilize Afghanistan. In Iraq, Riedel contended, the United States should disengage from the civil war and start seriously planning an orderly and phased troop drawdown. Beyond a military and security buildup, the United States should also take the lead on a major economic reconstruction program, be firmer with Pakistan and press it to conduct free and fair parliamentary elections. Above all, Riedel concluded, the West needs a more effective “narrative” to win the war of ideas with al-Qa’ida.

The war with al-Qa’ida does not need to be long, Riedel said. Decisive actions in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan can bring immediate results and set solid foundations for destroying the al-Qa’ida movement.

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