All terrorist networks fizzle out eventually. Is al-Qaeda past its cell-by date, asks Nigel West
In the nearly eight years since the attacks on New York and Washington DC on 11 September 2001, there has been much speculation about why al-Qaeda has not pulled off another atrocity on the same scale.
There are several possible explanations: that al-Qaeda’s leadership has been rendered almost impotent by arrests; that the organisation’s funding has been disrupted by the international cooperation to prevent it from raising money or distributing it; and that al-Qaeda made a fundamental, strategic mistake in sending its foreign volunteers to fight as insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The intelligence community simply does not know the answer to the conundrum. Certainly the West has gained a great deal of knowledge about the organisation and its personalities, the overwhelming majority of whom have been neutralised.
Many of those that have been captured have provided valuable information about their fellow plotters and their future plans. As for their money, there is no evidence to show that the terrorists can ever hope to enjoy the pre-9/11 era of anonymous, untraceable bank transfers and easy laundering techniques.
Some intelligence analysts are very upbeat about what has been achieved. Al-Qaeda no longer has a network of training camps in which new recruits can be indoctrinated and more experienced jihadists can pass on their wisdom.
On the contrary, the al-Qaeda leadership is very conscious that it has no safe havens of the kind it enjoyed under the protection of the Taleban, and any approach from an outsider may be an attempt at hostile penetration.
The result has been an inhibiting sense of insecurity bordering on paranoia, much of it justified. Richard Barrett, SIS’s former director of counter-terrorism who is now working for the UN Security Council’s al-Qaeda/Taleban Monitoring team, acknowledges that the leadership is ‘unable to find a consistent and reliable way to connect with and direct its supporters’.
The survivors of al-Qaeda’s original leadership are thought to be increasingly out of touch with their youthful potential supporters and have very little freedom of movement, even in Pakistan’s tribal areas, where they are considered outsiders.
The teenagers now keen to join the jihad have scarcely a memory of 9/11, and Osama bin Laden has become so remote that he is close to resembling Ché Guevara, an almost mythical revolutionary figure of no relevance to today’s world.
Supposedly al-Qaeda’s greatest strength has been the impact of its revolutionary theology, even if its actual ideological and other goals have been vague. However, al-Qaeda has been criticised by radical clerics in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Egypt, and there is a growing view that the organisation has brought great tragedy on its co-religionists, with Muslim women and children often bearing the brunt.
Alastair Crooke, another SIS retiree, insists that as an intellectual movement, ‘its significance has always been exaggerated in the West’.
He also notes that Hamas and Hezbollah, whom he knows well, ‘look on the results of al Qaeda-type uncontrolled, and uncontrollable, unleashing of emotion and of dynamics of mindless violence as purely destructive and inimical to the creation of any improvement in society.
They see it as the type of uncontrollable revolution that ends by consuming its own authors: they view these tactics as a recipe for unrestrained turmoil and conflict between Muslims.’
Critics within radical Islam point out that if al-Qaeda’s objective was to drive ‘the crusaders’ from the Middle East, the fact is that the West is now more engaged in the region than it was a decade ago.
The situation in Palestine is much as it was ten years ago, and there seems little chance of inflicting a humiliating defeat on the Coalition in southern Afghanistan, where Nato has made a twenty-year commitment.
Most of the terrorist incidents in recent times have been self-financed with no, or minimal, links to al-Qaeda, although there is strong evidence that Pakistan’s madrassas have played a crucial role in the radicalisation process, cultivating impressionable young men motivated by a variety of grievances and feeding their sense of anger and isolation.
However, the days of al-Qaeda being a conventional command and control structure are long over. Its adherents have endured a hideous rate of attrition, as manifested by the death of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi in 2006 in Iraq, and it seems that many captives respond well to the deprogramming courses introduced in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Yemen, where former zealots undergo an intensive rehabilitation to eliminate the malign influence of the recruiters.
The one area where al-Qaeda has scored, over the internet, using the worldwide web as a means of distributing quite skilful propaganda, has backfired, in that the first couple of generations of grisly videos, showing beheadings, have become counterproductive, serving only to highlight the sectarian nature of the group’s contribution to the armed resistance, and to document some unpalatable realities, such as the attacks on Shiite pilgrims and their mosques.
In an age of interactivity, the attraction of this material is waning, especially as al-Qaeda invariably avoids any open debate that might expose the fundamental contradictions in its ideology. When Ayman al-Zawahiri attempted to develop a dialogue over the internet, in December 2007, the experiment descended into rhetoric and sloganising, rather obviously devoid of any effort by al-Qaeda’s principal theologian to address the issues raised by critics.
Paradoxically, it is the western media who have ensured al-Qaeda’s high profile over a long period when the terrorists failed to pull off a single ‘spectacular’. Any terrorist incident will be reported with at least a reference to al-Qaeda, whoever the culprit, and every comment or pronouncement attributed to Bin Laden, however banal, will be guaranteed widespread coverage, and not just on Al Jazeera.
So is the al-Qaeda era drawing to a close? As a global movement it is finished, much of its message discredited by Islamic clerics. It has failed to establish itself as an alternative to Hezbollah or Hamas, and has been rejected in Egypt and Iran, the two traditional centres of Islamic scholarship.
It is dependent on foreign volunteers in Afghanistan, and has been denounced by the Taleban’s leader, Mullah Omar. That leaves it with just the ungovernable north-west province of Pakistan in which to operate, but even there the membership is eyed with suspicion by the local tribes, who have generations of hostility to outsiders.
As for Bin Laden, he has made no relevant contribution to the intellectual debate since his Message to the Islamic Nation of May 1998, in which he declared holy war against the infidel.
His September 1996 fatwa had set out his agenda paving the way for the attack on the Khobar Towers, the USS Cole in Aden and the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. In retrospect, 9/11 looks increasingly like an unrepeatable high point in al-Qaeda’s potency.
Within the intelligence community, a consensus is developing that accepts Richard Barrett’s view that ‘the mass of counter-terrorist assessments over the last seven years may have led to an overestimation of al-Qaeda’s strength’.
This unintended exaggeration has spawned a gigantic counter-terrorism industry and seen vast resources devoted to building a somewhat coordinated security apparatus that has had considerable success in interdicting planned atrocities and in conducting forensic enquiries after an attack.
While few would suggest that this amounts to an over-reaction, there are intelligence analysts who detect a distinctive pattern in the intrinsically self-destructive nature of terrorist organisations. A host of groups have imploded, descended into an internecine bloodbath or simply run out of militancy. But will al-Qaeda suffer the same fate?
History suggests movements lacking a popular constituency are doomed, and Crooke says: ‘It is doubtful whether al-Qaeda now draws direct loyalty of any substantive size.’ Its tactics, he believes, are ‘a reflection of its sense of powerlessness in a global context, [and] are condemned as unjust by the overwhelming majority of Muslims.
‘Their actions, which, by their nature, entail unpredictable outcomes, including counter-productive ones, have resulted in creating victims, often innocent victims, whose deaths are viewed as morally unjust by the vast majority of Muslims.’
Without the intellectual support of preachers, the approval of the principal Palestinian front-line, or a safe environment in which new adherents can be groomed, al-Qaeda may be destined to suffer the same fate as other groups that failed to develop and communicate a coherent, practical strategy.
Indeed, we may now be witnessing the death throes of a spent force. The restoration of the caliphate is not much of a rallying cry, and a call to arms to destroy Islamic apostasy and the West is an exercise in futility. As that reality is grasped, so al-Qaeda will continue its slide into obscurity.
Terrorism, of course, will be with us for ever, but the threat from Bin Laden and his diminishing number of acolytes looks increasingly spent.