The Rise and Fall (and Rise?) of al-Qaeda
Eleven years after its defining attack, al-Qaeda is a defeated organization - severely downsized in its operational capability, decisively disrupted in its ability to muster financial support, and tightly besieged in its recruitment and communications efforts. Still, in two important respects, the legacy of al-Qaeda continues to constitute a tangible threat for the international peace and stability. More dramatically, the lack of Western and Arab determination on the Syrian question is providing al-Qaeda with a worrisome comeback opportunity.
The nation-building efforts led by the United States in Afghanistan - intended in part to deny al-Qaeda a safe haven - may be faltering. The careful multi-faceted campaign undertaken by the United States, on the other hand, to dismantle the elusive and shape-shifting web of al-Qaeda has yielded concrete results. The killing of Osama bin Laden may have brought these successes to the fore. More important - but less visible - kinetic and regulatory achievements have reduced the capacity of al-Qaeda in dramatic and probably irreversible ways.
This, however, does not end the threat that al-Qaeda constitutes. Massively disruptive terrorism may no longer emanate from al-Qaeda proper, but rather from its regional franchises in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Somalia, North Africa, and more recently West Africa. While each of these franchises reflects local dynamics, spillover effects and deliberate international action could bring death and mayhem beyond their respective limited areas of operations. The affiliation of these organizations with al-Qaeda may be primarily ideological, but it is through this ideological connection that al-Qaeda is leveraging local militancy in its asymmetrical war against the West.
Al-Qaeda as an über-organization has effectively collapsed. The essence of the terror group, however, survives as an ideology and methodology and has the potential to inspire unaffiliated militants to commit acts of lethal terror. While unsuccessful, the December 2010 attempt at detonating a bomb in a Detroit-bound plane and the failed Times Square car bomb attempt in New York City respectively illustrate the gravity of the danger of al-Qaeda franchisees and self-indoctrinated/self-propelled militants.
Containing and reversing the gains of regional Al Qaeda offshoots requires porting the approach used by the United States against al-Qaeda Central to local settings, with local and regional partners. This remains an arduous and unfulfilled task that tests and depletes the scarce local resources that may be allocated for it. As demonstrated by the recent insurgency in Northern Mali and the battle with Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula, the al-Qaeda "cloud" exploits power vacuums and local grievances, and integrates trafficking and criminal networks to multiply the points of engagement in its global fight.
Al-Qaeda opportunistically leverages these skirmishes to perpetuate an impression of relevance for its primary constituency - the disparate pool of potential militants worldwide. However, no setting offers al-Qaeda with the opportunity to regain actual relevance among a wider audience more than Syria in its current quagmire.
While drawing selectively from centuries of Islamic scholarship, the ideological framework of al-Qaeda traces directly from 20th-century totalitarianism, originally presented ex cathedra as a remedy for the chronic failures witnessed by Muslim societies. Since its emergence as an uncompromising current within Islamist thought, al-Qaeda presented its ideology as a self-evident truth, stipulating solutions and summarily rejecting any opposing idea. With the transformations in the Arab world, which has witnessed widespread mobilization and empowerment of previously subdued populations, al-Qaeda ideologues have become more engaged in articulating an argument in favor of their view. Muslim societies, al-Qaeda ideologues note, strive to overturn the record of unfulfilled promises of progress and justice, while the West is at best indifferent toward - if not outright complicit in - their suffering and exploitation. Western methods and ideas - nationalism, socialism, liberalism, and democracy - are thus to be dismissed; legitimacy and justice are solely to be rooted in Islam.
The new, friendlier al-Qaeda ideological proposition still sounded outdated in the euphoria of the Arab Spring, with values such as freedom, dignity, and empowerment embraced by successive societies in North Africa and the Middle East, and applauded and supported by a welcoming world community. Then there was Syria.
International support for the peaceful popular uprising against the despotic rule of the Damascus regime failed to materialize. Red lines were drawn in the sand, and pronouncements of principle were vocalized in world capitals, from Ankara and Riyadh to Paris and Washington. Yet no concrete action was taken to stop the massacre, or the transformation of the peaceful uprising into a violent, asymmetrical conflict. For many Syrians, the notion of Western complicity, by omission or commission, in their plight is no longer dismissible. For many across the region, the al-Qaeda ideological stand is gaining new credibility.
While al-Qaeda is incapable of prevailing militarily in Syria, or elsewhere in the region, the missteps and hesitation of regional and international power may have accorded this organization a way out of what seemed to be a certain death. The invoice will follow.