What does AQ want? And how does it end?
We’re still debating all this, almost a decade after 9/11. The failed Christmas bombing in Detroit raised the questions yet again.
Some, like Stephen Walt, argue that our own policies fundamentally contribute to Islamist terrorism, and that AQ loathes us primarily because of what we do:
Only a complete head-in-the-sand approach to the issue would deny the connection between various aspects of U.S. foreign and military policy (military interventions, targeted assassinations, unconditional support for Israel, cozy relations with Arab dictatorships, etc.) and the fact that groups like al Qaeda keep finding people like al-Balawi to recruit to their cause.
To support this view, they can point to any number of complaints by AQ theorists and warriors against specific policies. In particular, they can point to Al Qaeda’s theory of global war, to take the war to the ‘far enemy’ in order to topple the ‘near enemy’, of wicked apostate regimes at home (the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq), as well as Israel.
Others, like Oliver Kamm and Raymond Ibrahim, disagree. They believe AQ’s war is existential, not just a reaction to inflammatory Western policies. To make this case, they invoke Al Qaeda’s bromides against not just western policy, but against infidels generally, and the ideology of conquest and vision of a restored lost empire (the Caliphate) that powers their war. They cite Bin Laden’s statements such as this:
Our talks with the infidel West and our conflict with them ultimately revolve around one issue — one that demands our total support, with power and determination, with one voice — and it is: Does Islam, or does it not, force people by the power of the sword to submit to its authority corporeally if not spiritually?…There are only three choices in Islam:  either willing submission [conversion];  or payment of the jizya, through physical, though not spiritual, submission to the authority of Islam;  or the sword — for it is not right to let him [an infidel] live. The matter is summed up for every person alive: Either submit, or live under the suzerainty of Islam, or die.
That’s pretty universal. But does it have to be the money or the gun?
No doubt Bin Laden’s vision of war, like Sayyid Qutb’s, contains exisential fury. It isn’t just a defensive campaign to wind down American imperial power, but to act as the vanguard for an Islamic empire. After all, Bin Laden himself claimed that he was “ordered to fight the people until they say there is no god but Allah, and his prophet Muhammad.” This is a movement that mourns the loss of Islamic Spain in 1492, and names the loss of East Timor from Indonesia as one of its reasons for fighting Australia.
But even allowing for that, Al Qaeda sees America as the mothership of infidel tyranny in the world. This is partly to do with a revulsion against American culture itself, as a glance at Qutb’s writings makes clear. But its also to do with the tragic fact that America’s appetite for oil from the Middle East (and the fact that we all need it, lets not be pompous), and its desire to project power in that region has entangled it further in the world of Islamist fury and tied it to unattractive and oppressive regimes.
Al Qaeda’s war against America drives from deep existential anger against what it sees as a fallen world and a yearning for a pure Islamic state. But America’s role as the patron of what Al Qaeda sees as the ‘apostate’ regimes helped place it at the top of their impressively wide-ranging list of enemies. By underwriting the security of tyrants loathed by Islamists, America became regarded as the far enemy.
The fact is, that Al Qaeda have defined their war both as an existential fight against impurity and as a drive to strike, exhaust and expel America from the Middle East and the Arab-Islamic world, inspiring the masses into a chain of theocratic uprisings. There is a geopolitical and policy dimension, as well as a theological and existential one.
So what to do? Ordinary counter-terrorism in fact has been remarkably effective over the past few years, in terms of draining the movement of talent, assisting the backlash of ordinary Muslims against AQ’s brutality, and in containing its capabilities.
But what to do about the ideological drive behind Islamist movements such as this? AQ may whither and fade, but it could also reinvent itself, or be replaced by new permutations. What can we do to counter the ideological forces that draw others to it, and could create groups of people sympathetic or actively supportive?
All of the options are easier said than done. Greater energy independence, and a prudent and careful withdrawal from a ground-based forward presence to over-the-horizon regional balancer would not eliminate Islamist threats, along with a more limited counter-terrorist agenda, but could draw some of their ideological sting. If we have learnt one thing over the course of this ‘Long War’, it is that nationalism and the dislike of on-the-ground military occupation by foreigners is visceral, powerful and hard to dampen down. Anything America can do to scale back its military presence and lower its footprint in the Gulf, remain over the horizon to deter or prevent any rise of a dangerous state hegemon and to protect the chokepoint of the Straits of Hormuz, and make the Gulf less geopolitically important to its interests than it is, would help. Less forward presence and less reliance upon those regimes would weaken AQ’s claims that holy territory must be liberated. This is long-term, and more easily said than done. Particularly as growing reliance on Middle Eastern oil will make it more tempting, not less, to keep a strong military presence on the soil. But we ignore the geopolitical dangers of the status quo to our disadvantage, so alternatives must be considered.
In the meantime, victory against AQ itself means marginalising it to become a second-order threat, or even a nuisance. What does victory look like? It looks like a man setting fire to his underpants and failing miserably to be a martyr. Victory, against AQ at least, is at hand. As Michael Burleigh argues, their affiliates can be dangerous but the overall picture for them is bleak:
Intelligence experts reckon there are probably 120core al-Qaeda operatives, their overriding concern being to get through each night still in one piece by day break. Most al-Qaeda members come from north Africa or the Gulf states, with a few Indonesians and Uzbeks tacked on. Since their chief animus is against the rulers of those states, by their own lights they have failed, for not a single authoritarian republic or reactionary monarchy has fallen as a result of terrorist activity. The one thing the Bouteflikas, Gaddafis, Mubaraks and Sauds are very, very good at, is remaining in power. Further east, the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore seems to have crushed jihadism – notably by the killing of Noordin Top, al-Qaeda’s chief operative in the tri-state region.
Now and again they will strike, but operationally they are a shadow of what they were. When they brought down skyscrapers, torpedoed the Pentagon and inflicting mass casualties a billions of dollars damage, they earnt our attention and our anxiety. Now they deserve far less. Lets stop giving them free power that they haven’t earnt. And lets prepare not to inflict fundamental self-harm the next time a bomber gets through.