How's al-Qaeda Doing?

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British Marines search vehicles in Afghanistan to hinder al Qaeda's activity

Osama bin Laden may not be winning his war with America, but it's far from clear that he's losing. That's not simply because he remains at large while reports of his spokesmen threatening new terror outrages have become a media staple. It's because an important measure of Bin Laden's strategic success or failure is the extent to which his worldview is embraced, or repudiated, on the Arab street. The fundamental strategic objective of al-Qaeda's terrorism is to channel the widespread anti-American anger in the Muslim world into the overthrow of pro-Western rulers, and their replacement by radical Islamist regimes. Whether the targets of its attacks are in the U.S. or Europe or the Middle East, their purpose is to fuel Islamic revolutions in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world.

If the Arab street is a key battlefield in the struggle between the U.S. and al-Qaeda, a recent UNDP study of the socio-economic outlook for the Arab world is cause for concern. Arab populations are growing, economies are shrinking, and the authoritarian religious and political culture leaves the citizenry prone to direct its rage towards the West rather than at the leaders who have failed them. That's why, despite the support from Arab regimes and their intelligence services for the U.S. campaign against Bin Laden's network, the Arab world remains fertile ground for recruiting al-Qaeda members.

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Al-Qaeda has certainly suffered major setbacks since September 11. Some of its top leaders have been killed or captured. Many of its key operatives have been arrested. And most importantly, the network lost the Afghan sanctuary where it had been able to train tens of thousands of 'jihadis' over the past decade. Still, the men who planned the September 11 attacks can't have doubted that America would launch a ferocious counterattack.

Bomb blasts in Pakistan, foiled and failed plots in Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and the steady flow of threat warnings in the U.S. are ample reminder of al-Qaeda's survival despite those setbacks. Indeed, destroying its Afghan sanctuary may have changed the network's operating principles in ways that make life even more difficult for its enemies. Bin Laden's operatives had previously sent young men recruited throughout all over the world for terrorist training in Afghan camps. Now, the organization's inner core of cadres — estimated by experts to number some 3,000 men — have dispersed throughout the Arab and Muslim world. And their priority will be to replenish and extend the network by recruiting and training new operatives, building new terrorist networks among the locals, and folding those and pre-existing local groups into a more diffuse international network. That may be why Washington has taken such great care to warn Americans that its war on terrorism will continue for years to come.

The network's organizational starting point has tended to be pre-existing local radical groups. Al-Qaeda itself is a product of the globalization of armed Islamist extremism that began during the anti-Soviet "jihad" in Afghanistan. Militants previously engaged only with local grievances flocked to Afghanistan from all over the Islamic world, and were drawn into an 'Islamist International' that created the basis for al-Qaeda. Bin Laden's approach has been to fuse the efforts of diverse groups engaged in local insurgencies in Egypt, Algeria, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, China, the Philippines and elsewhere into a single global 'jihad,' targeting the U.S. as the guarantor of the 'apostate' regimes the Islamists want to destroy.

Through terror attacks against U.S. targets, al-Qaeda hopes to rally the virulent anti-American sentiment on the Arab streets, and to show potential supporters that their enemy is vulnerable to the actions of determined "jihadis." They can't hope to destroy America through terrorism, but they do believe that they have a fighting chance of fomenting a crisis that provokes the collapse of the pro-Western regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere. It is that battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab street that explains the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in al-Qaeda's propaganda.

The fate of the Palestinians has never been a primary strategic concern for al-Qaeda. Nor, for that matter, has the pursuit of Palestinian statehood traditionally been a strategic priority for Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. And yet, today, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not only dominates al-Qaeda's propaganda; it also dominates the diplomatic agenda of America's moderate Arab allies. The reason is simply that both sides recognize the emotional power of the Israeli-Palestinian issue to rally the Arab street. Mounting anger over violence in the West Bank and Gaza has created a domestic political crisis for Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, because of their governments' alliances with Israel's key sponsor, the U.S. That's a domestic crisis al-Qaeda will be looking to exploit in its efforts to find the men and money to grow its networks.

U.S. allies in the Arab world have spent most of this year pressing President Bush to intervene in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and most have been quietly exasperated by the new policy he announced last week that made Yasser Arafat's ouster a precondition for progress. Continuing conflict in the West Bank and Gaza puts their alliance with the U.S. under domestic political strain, and there's considerable fear in Arab capitals that this tension will be exacerbated if — or more likely when — the U.S. ignores their reservations and invades Iraq. The Bush administration appears to be calculating that decisive action to eliminate the noxious regime in Baghdad will do more to transform the political climate in the Arab world than piecemeal interventions into the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Al-Qaeda may be putting its money on the opposite outcome. So despite what may have been achieved in Afghanistan, the battle between the U.S. and al-Qaeda for Arab hearts and minds may still be in its infancy.