Al-Qaeda Today: Not Winning, But Not Losing, Either

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Recent footage of bin Laden was aired by the Arabic satellite channel Al-Jazeera

The past two years have been a wild ride for Osama bin Laden and his followers: They've wrought mayhem in America's political and financial capitals; been driven from their Afghan sanctuaries and forced to duck and dive as scores of their top operatives have been arrested or killed; launched new attacks and continued to broadcast propaganda tapes. Most important, they've managed to survive. After all, as Henry Kissinger once observed, the conventional army loses by not winning, but the guerrilla wins by not losing.

There have been a number of al-Qaeda inspired terror strikes since September 11 2001 — in Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan, Morocco, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and possibly even Iraq. Further plots have been disrupted in Europe, the Arab world and possibly the U.S. But the movement's fortunes, over the past two years, cannot be judged by the number of attacks it has launched, any more than the success of President Bush's "war on terror" can be measured by the number of al-Qaeda operatives captured or killed.

For some, the fact that Osama Bin Laden continues to taunt Washington — most recently with a new videotape aired by al-Jazeera on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary — signals that the campaign against al-Qaeda is far from over. But while Bin Laden's capture would certainly bring justice for the many victims of the terror he inspired — and strike a blow at the morale of his followers — his personal fate is now of secondary importance to the outcome of the conflict he launched.

The new al-Qaeda
There's no question that the U.S. onslaught against al-Qaeda that began in Afghanistan in October of 2001 has dealt the organization some painful blows. President Bush noted, in his address to the nation on Sunday, that up to two thirds of the "known leadership of al-Qaeda" has been captured or killed. Its training camps in Afghanistan have been destroyed and the relentless worldwide campaign to target al-Qaeda has denied it new sanctuaries; cooperation between the U.S. and Europe and the intelligence services of the Arab and Muslim world has netted or eliminated many key operatives and foiled a number of terror plots; and much of its financial support has been choked off.

Still, intelligence analysts believe al-Qaeda has effectively adapted to the new reality, further dispersing its already diffuse structure. The President's "known leadership" phrase may be telling: Many of the terror plots currently gestating in secret cells all over the world may be being nurtured by operatives not yet on the radar screens of U.S. or allied intelligence. And there's no shortage of new recruits these days from throughout the Muslim world, ready to sacrifice themselves to harm the U.S. Some of the attacks over the past two years appear to have been centrally coordinated across national borders — the most difficult type of operation to mount under the new security conditions — but others appear to have been local initiatives by al-Qaeda associates acting on fire-at-will proclamations of the sort broadcast by al-Jazeera on Wednesday. Al-Qaeda has not simply decentralized its structure, analysts have noted, it has begun to assume the form not simply of an organization but of a growing movement or ideology, among young Muslims embracing bin Laden's idea that the West is at war with Islam and must be confronted with violence.

In al-Qaeda's game plan, the attacks of 9/11 were not an end in themselves, but a means to pursue their goal of driving the U.S. out of the Muslim world, overthrowing the pro-U.S. regimes in states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia (and eventually everywhere from Morocco to Indonesia), and to eliminate the Jewish state in their midst. Al-Qaeda propaganda regularly proclaims that the U.S. will flee from a head-on fight in Muslim lands, citing the examples of the withdrawals from Beirut in 1985 and Mogadishu in '94. Bin Laden is unlikely to have imagined that the 9/11 attacks would force the U.S. to immediately quit Saudi Arabia or to abandon Israel, but the jihadis operate in a time-frame far more long-term than that of their adversaries — the reason, for example, that the region of western Pakistan that borders Afghanistan is dotted with religious schools imparting the crude religious teaching that spawned the Taliban is that these were built during the 1980s by the Saudi and Pakistani government to indoctrinate the next generation of mujahedeen to fight the Soviets. (Nobody had expected that Mikhail Gorbachev would suddenly bring the Red Army home in 1989.)

The battle for Muslim hearts and minds
The long-term aim of the 9/11 attacks was, in the rhetoric of bin Laden's own supporters, to "divide the world between the faithful and the infidels." The attacks would show prospective jihadists that the U.S. could be bloodied at the very heart of its power, and that this would help convince millions of Muslim youth that by turning to arms, they could defeat the Americans and their local allies throughout the Arab and Muslim world. They also expected that the attacks — and the inevitable U.S. military action they would provoke — would create a crisis in the pro-U.S. regimes of the Arab and Muslim world by forcing Muslims to choose between the Islamists and an increasingly aggressive U.S.

In other words, al-Qaeda's objectives in the 9/11 attacks were primarily to change the political dynamic within the Muslim world, turning it against America and those that would work with America. Where President Bush responded with the warning that "you're either with us or against us," al-Qaeda calculated that the Muslim masses, unlike their governments, would turn away from the U.S. The fundamental battle for Bin Laden's movement, therefore, was for the hearts and minds of the Muslim faithful.

And on that front, it must be frankly noted, al-Qaeda may be doing a lot better than the U.S.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 few in the Muslim mainstream identified with the terror attacks. That much was obvious from the wave of denial that blamed the attacks on the Mossad or the CIA. The truth — that the callous murder of almost 3,000 civilians was carried out by 19 Arab men who considered themselves devout and pious Muslims carrying out a blessed act — was too horrific to swallow. Cowardly attacks on civilians elicited little pride in the Muslim world, and plenty of revulsion. That was why they had to be blamed on somebody else.

But whereas a very small proportion of Muslims worldwide identified with al-Qaeda's actions, a substantially larger proportion agreed with bin Laden's indictment of the U.S. as an enemy of Muslim interests — U.S. support for Israel's actions against the Palestinians, the impact of a decade of sanctions on ordinary Iraqis and the presence of its troops in Saudi Arabia certainly provided a fertile propaganda for bin Laden's movement. And, if anything, the actions of the U.S. in the course of the administration's "war on terror" have substantially increased both groups — those willing to support or engage in violent against Americans; and those who view America as the enemy of Islam. U.S. diplomats working in the Arab world freely acknowledge that over the past two years, America's standing across all strata of the Arab world, from the growing army of angry young men with no job prospects in their stagnant economies to the liberal middle class and intelligentsia enjoying the fruits of globalization, has fallen to an all-time low. And the effects of U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the ongoing violence between Israelis and Palestinians, are sustaining that downward spiral.

New opportunities
The U.S. invasion of Iraq appears to have offered al-Qaeda its greatest growth opportunity yet. While the Bush administration's prewar claims about a significant connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda appear to have been spurious, they may nonetheless have created a self-fulfilling prophesy. Arab and Muslim outrage at the U.S. occupation of Iraq has created a new organizing principle for al-Qaeda, whose spokesmen now urge their followers worldwide to make their way to Iraq to wage jihad against the invaders. For bin Laden's followers, the growing insurgency in Iraq is more than simply a golden opportunity to spill their enemy's blood on a battlefield more accessible than most; it's an opportunity to lay the foundation for the next generation of al-Qaeda in the way that the Afghan jihad against the Soviets had brought together the "known leadership" of al-Qaeda and forged their organization. They want to repeat the experience in Iraq, encouraging young Islamists from all over the world to make their way there and learn the art of fighting the Americans from the shadows. And the scale of the U.S. commitment in Iraq — and the obvious strains for Washington of spending tens of billions of dollars a year and sustaining the deployment of 150,000 troops there — leads the more optimistic jihadists to see a prospect of imminent victory in Iraq.

Still, no matter how bogged down the U.S. may be in Iraq, and the fact that hundreds of jihadis are believed to have sneaked across its borders, al-Qaeda can't claim victories there — most of the Iraqi resistance is entirely homegrown. Bin Laden's network has lost many key operatives and its sanctuaries, its structures and finances have been disrupted, and none of the Arab regimes it aims to topple have fallen. Still, the fact that the trend in the Arab and Muslim world over the past two years is to turn away from the U.S. rather than move closer to it has to be the single most important factor operating in al-Qaeda's favor. As long as a significant portion of the world's Muslims perceive U.S. actions in Iraq, Israel and elsewhere as innately hostile to their interests, al-Qaeda — and the wider jihadi movement it has spawned — is unlikely to be eliminated. So, they're not winning the war, thus far — but they're not losing it.