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Can Al-Qaeda Be Killed?

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The assassination of Al-Qaeda leader Mustafa Abu al-Yazid this week has people wondering if the terrorist organization, long the world's collective super villain, will soon be a thing of the past. Good thing I've been researching that very question for a little over a month. The short answer is, "Yes, probably." The long answer is: "Not on your life."

President Obama and his State Department have an explicit goal when it comes to Al-Qaeda, one that's repeated like a mantra: "Disrupt, Dismantle and Defeat." It sounds a bit lofty, yes, but almost all experts concur that Al-Qaeda can, in theory, be eliminated. James Brandon from The Quilliam Foundation, an NGO founded by two former members of the extremist group Hizbut-Tahrir, remarked, "It's possible to eliminate Al-Qaeda through capturing or arresting its key leaders and organizers." He also noted that members could be lured away from terror groups by being offered alternate methods.

Charles Kurzman, author of the forthcoming book The Missing Martyrs, Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists, told me, "Of course Al-Qaeda can be killed. Few organizations last forever. Fortunately, Al-Qaeda and most similar organizations are tiny groups and have difficulty replacing their dead or detained with new recruits." Great! So, that's that: Al-Qaeda can, and will, be killed, and the world will be safe from its terrorist scourge. Not quite.

Just as quickly as people claim Al-Qaeda could be defeated, they add a caveat. Brandon argues, "Defeating the Al-Qaeda ideology -- the idea that Muslims are justified in carrying out terrorist attacks to establish an 'Islamic state' or to 'punish' the West, is likely to prove far more difficult." He continued, "You could compare Al-Qaeda to communism: Being a communist doesn't necessarily mean belonging to a Communist party; it just means holding Communist beliefs."

Meanwhile, Matt Levitt from The Washington Institute tells me, "Al-Qaeda is harder to defeat than most, because it's a movement, rather than just an organization." Founded in 1988, Al-Qaeda is this generation of terrorism's patriarch. It's the vanguard, and has inspired like-minded, geographically diverse groups and lone wolves the world over, some of which have even adopted the Qaeda moniker, like Yemen Al-Qaeda. And it's these groups that pose the most terrifying threat.

In a report delivered to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2009, Foreign Policy Research Institute senior fellow Marc Sageman pointed out that Al-Qaeda-inspired organizations are responsible for more deadly attacks than Osama bin Laden's gang. "[Al-Qaeda] managed only two successful plots in the West in the last twenty years! The fact that they were so deadly overshadows this truth. Indeed, successful independent plots outnumber successful Al-Qaeda plots in the West." The affiliated Algerian Groupes Islamiques Armes scored the most hits: 9 of the 14 successful hits in the West since 1993. And that's precisely why the world needs to rethink its conventional strategies to take down this unconventional foe.

Most official groups, like the United Nations, focus on traditional tactics to curtail terror, such as bolstering member states' security apparatus and enforcing the criminalization of terrorism. Criminalization can indeed have a positive impact, says Levitt, "Criminal court goes a long way in knocking terrorists down from their religious pedestal." Criminalization also hinders the recruitment process, which obviously limits a terror group's ability to lash out. But there are negative effects, too.

"From the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 1950s to al-Qaeda in Jordan in the 1990s, Islamist individuals have used their time in prisons to radicalize and recruit followers and to refine and revise their ideologies," Brandon writes in his report, Unlocking Al-Qaeda: Islamist Extremism in British Prisons. More than that, criminalization can also add to the bandit-like allure of Al-Qaeda, which seduces young men into blood-soaked adventure.

Asked about theories that criminalization helps terror, Mike Smith from the UN's counter terrorism arm replied, "I agree that 'mystification' or giving glamour to terrorists is a problem, but I think there are factors that play much more heavily into that than just criminalization: videos of terror attacks and appeals for support on jihadist websites are a much more serious concern." The seduction of violent radicalism must then be tackled from a range of angles.

It's unclear precisely why people join up with groups like Al-Qaeda. "There is no single pathway to radicalization, and many different underlying factors appear to contribute to the process," noted Rhonda Shore from the State Department.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council, meanwhile, points to various possibilities, including identity politics, political marginalization, the presence of radical ideology and socioeconomic deprivation, while others cite a "culture of violence" in marginalized communities. These and more can lead to what people loosely call "radicalization." But that word may be a misnomer.

I've previously discussed how radicalism should be a welcome social element. Jamie Bartlett from the London-based think tank Demos, agrees, telling me, "Each person and especially each generation has their own radicalism." Though radicalism can turn violent, that's not its inherent end: It's about resisting the status quo.

Bartlett insists that non-violent radicalism may in fact be key in curbing worldwide terror. "Governments should not be concerned about radicalism," he asserts. "They should encourage political radicalism to reengage people in politics and channel that youthful energy." Al-Qaeda and its peers, however, are a bit ahead of the curve.

Terror groups create what people call a "market for martyrs." "A 'terrorist business firm' uses recruitment 'advertisements' to tap into and/or create a market of people experiencing identity crises," MPAC researchers write in their study, Building Bridges. "These identity-conflicted individuals are the labor pool or market for martyrs terrorist firms recruit from." A security threat has thus been born. To stem it, that terrorist recruitment pool must be reclaimed.

Civil society plays an important role in conquering violent radicalism: Social initiatives, counter-ideology programs and other non-governmental organizations are exceedingly important. The key to civil engagement is that one size doesn't fit all. "The needs of young people in one location can differ from the needs of others living elsewhere," notes Shore from the State Department. "That is why we are trying to develop programs that are tailored to the local needs of youth at risk of radicalization." To that end, the State department and local embassies are fostering partnerships in the Middle East to help create an environment hostile to Al-Qaeda's pull.

The U.S. government and its allies overseas have also set up a slew of websites to demonstrate that "the promises of violent extremists will not lead them to a better future." Governments, however, must be the only power playing in civil society, lest they further marginalize Muslim and other at-risk communities by making it seem they themselves, rather than fringe radicals, are the problem.

On the more unconventional side of counterterrorism, Bartlett and his colleagues suggest in their recent study, Edge of Violence that stressing Al-Qaeda's incompetence could help hinder their growth: "Satire has long been recognized as a powerful tool to undermine the popularity of social movements: both the Ku Klux Klan and the British Fascist party in the 1930s were seriously harmed by sustained satire."

Al-Qaeda and their allies must be laughed at, rather than feared, as director Christopher Morris does in his new movie, Four Lions, which follows a hapless crew of would-be suicide bombers. Satire cannot, of course, be the only civil force in combating Al-Qaeda's absurdity and incompetence, lest it trivialize the group's senseless war.

The Quilliam Foundation provides an excellent example of how civil society can be bolstered to counter bin Laden and company: The organization visits Pakistani universities to preach a new type of engagement. "Our main message is to argue that Islamism, the idea of creating an 'Islamic state' and imposing Sharia law, are not intrinsic to Islam," contends Brandon. "These terrorist ideas were created by Muslim activists in Egypt and India in the 1920; ideas that were inspired by the then-dominant ideologies of communism, fascism and nationalism."

The U.S.-based group MPAC takes a similar approach. Their "I am Change" campaign reaches also out to university students, one of Al-Qaeda's recruiting pools, and emphasizes the civility of Islamic social responsibility. "Islam needs to be packaged as civil engagement and freedom in society," asserts Tarin. "We need a new narrative of engaging, one that builds, rather than destroys. Al-Qaeda's culture of death must be replaced by a culture of life." That life's local.

Community policing - coalitions between local leaders, religious and secular, as well as law enforcement and regular Joes - prove integral to stamping out incendiary elements. "Community policing regularly communicates with the community and partners with it to proactively tackle issues of crime, fear of crime, disorder, and quality-of-life concerns," write the researchers at MPAC. Intelligence gathering becomes more democratic and diversified, and Al-Qaeda ends up with nowhere to run. That would be their own damn fault.

Many of my sources confirm that Al-Qaeda may be its own worst enemy. First and foremost, their insistence on killing their operatives creates an obvious vacuum, which the group fills with eager youngsters. Too bad those youngsters aren't diehard, as Richard Barrett from the UN al-Qaida and Taliban Sanctions Committee Monitoring Team said in a recent Washington Institute speech, "Those aren't people who are going to be committed enough to do hours and hours of training and really plan a suicide attack." What's more, violent jihad often alienates terror groups' social peers: an estimated 40% of Al-Qaeda and sympathizer victims are Muslim.

Images of disembodied Muslims hardly make Al-Qaeda look legitimate, nor does it endear local governments. The group is, in essence, shooting itself in the foot. Yet, for all the tools and tactics that could be used against Al-Qaeda and its imitators, it's unlikely such threats will end any time soon. The Washington Institute report called Global Trends 2025 explains, "Although we believe the appeal of Al-Qaeda and other international terrorist groups will diminish over the next 15-20 years, pockets of support will remain, ensuring a continuing threat, particularly as lethal technology is expected to become more accessible." Even if they're not in the form of Al-Qaeda, terrorists will exist.

In 1907, Joseph Conrad wrote a book called The Secret Agent, a fictionalized account of an 1886 anarchist attack on the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England. Obviously self-conscious about the book's reviews, Conrad penned a post-script in which he describes terrorism as "a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that [it's] impossible to fathom its origin by reason or even unreasonable process of thought." At the end of the book, after all the carnage, the man who made the lethal bomb evaporates into the shadows: "He passed on, unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men."

That passage reminded me of Albert Camus' conclusion to The Plague. "The plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good," wrote Camus. "And perhaps the day would come when [it] rouses up its rats again and sent them forth to die in a happy city." So too when it comes to terrorism: It appears in various forms, shapes and at different times, yet it always lurks, just beyond recognition, until it's too late, and the only way to combat it is with innovation, tenacity and faith.

Note: This post originally appeared at Death and Taxes magazine.