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The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda: Debunking the Terrorism Narrative

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The popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain have not only shaken the foundation of the authoritarian order in the Middle East, but they have also hammered a deadly nail in the coffin of a terrorism narrative which has painted Al-Qaeda as the West's greatest threat. At least, they should have.

Yet despite Osama bin Laden's killing in May, the dwindling of his group to the palest shadow of its former self and the protest of millions across the Arab world for whom the group never represented, Al-Qaeda holds a grasp on the Western imagination. Few Americans and Westerners realize the degree to which their fear of terrorism is misplaced, making closure over to the costly War on Terror difficult, if not impossible. Shrouded in myth and inflated by a self-sustaining industry of so-called terrorism "experts" and a well-funded national security industrial complex whose numbers swelled to nearly one million, the power of Al-Qaeda can only be eradicated when the fantasies around the group are laid to rest.

Myth 1: Al-Qaeda has been operational for more than two decades

Contrary to the conventional terrorism narrative, Al-Qaeda has not been a functional organization with the goal of targeting the West for the past 20 years. By the time the American forces expelled bin Laden and his associates from their base in Afghanistan at the end of 2001, Al-Qaeda, as we know it today, was only five years old.

At the end of the Afghan war in 1989, none of the leading figures -- Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, Ayman al-Zawahiri, nor bin Laden -- called for targeting the United States or the West. Even after the catalyst for change in bin Laden's thinking -- the American military intervention in the Gulf in 1990 and its permanent stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia -- the group did not translate this hostility into concrete action. Rather, it was during bin Laden's time in Sudan in the mid-1990s where he combined business practices with ideological indoctrination.

Myth 2: Al-Qaeda has lots of boots on the ground

At its height of its power in the late 1990s, Al-Qaeda had between 1,000 and 3,000 members. Transnational jihadism of the Al-Qaeda variety has, in fact, never had a large constituency, nor a solid base of popular support: Al-Qaeda has never been a viable social movement, but truly a fringe group without mass appeal among Muslim opinion. Contrary to received wisdom, September 11 did not turn out to be Al-Qaeda's baptism by fire, a force multiplier, a game changer. There was no river of young recruits to rise up and join the fight against the head of kufr (impiety) -- the U.S. -- as had happened with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s. Western intelligence officials believe that there are fewer than 200 surviving members of Al-Qaeda, based mainly in Pakistan and Afghanistan and mostly unskilled composed of cooks, drivers, bodyguards and food soldiers.

Myth Three: Al Qaeda has the same philosophy as other militant Islamist organizations
While distinctions are rarely made between domestic jihadis and transnational Al-Qaeda types, or between Al-Qaeda and politically based Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas or Hizbullah, Al-Qaeda, with deep historical roots in Muslim societies, is an ideological orphan within the military Islamist family, an ambitious venture founded and led by a small vanguard. Grouping all these organizations together glosses over a history of ideological struggles within militant Islamist groups and even among Al Qaeda's inner sanctum of leaders over the concept of transnational jihad. From its origins in the late 1950s until the mid-1990s, a period of almost forty years, the militant Islamist movement known as "jihadism" was inward-looking, obsessed with replacing "renegade" secular Muslim rulers with Qur'anic-based states or states governed by the sharia (Islamic law). In the 1990s bin Laden and Zawahiri twisted these ideologies to suit their purposes of fighting the 'far enemy' -- the U.S. and its close Western allies -- which they believed would attract enough followers to build an army and momentum enough for their nearer battles.

Myth Four: While Al-Qaeda Central has suffered a defeat with the loss of bin Laden, local 'branches' of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Indonesia will continue to try to attack the U.S. and the West

The material links and connections between local branches and Al-Qaeda Central are tenuous at best: far from being an institutionally coherent social movement, Al-Qaeda is a loose collection of small groups and factions that tend to be guided by charismatic individuals and are more local than transnational in outlook. Most victims are therefore Muslim civilians. Further, these branches tend to be as much a liability for the long term strategic interests of Al-Qaeda Central as they are assets. Abu Musab Zarqawi, the emir of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, proved to be Al-Qaeda Central's worst enemy. He refused to take orders from bin Laden or Zawahiri and, in fact, acted against their wishes, according to his own desires. Like Zarqawi, local groups or franchises -- like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb -- which the terrorism narrative often paints as being closely aligned and commanded by Al-Qaeda Central in fact have proven repeatedly that they run by their own local and contextualized agendas, not those set among the inner sanctum of Al-Qaeda Central.

Myth Five: The War on Terror has made Americans safer and has decreased the likelihood of attacks on the country

There is a clear causal link between incidences of homegrown terrorism in the West and the post-9/11 wars fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more recently in Pakistan and Yemen. Far from weeding out individual terrorists drone by drone to put an end to Al-Qaeda and its violence, the American offensive since 9/11 has fed into the Al-Qaeda narrative which paints the West as a Judeo-Christian crusader and, ironically, inspired a new generation of homegrown radicals. Despite their apparent tactical success, U.S. counterterrorism measures like drone attacks further fuel anti-American sentiments and calls for vengeance. Yet neither the U.S. national security apparatus nor terrorism experts acknowledge a link between the new phenomenon of bottom-up extremism and the U.S. War on Terror, particularly in Afghanistan-Pakistan.

Further, despite the phenomenal expansion of the intelligence machine as part of the War on Terror, this machine has failed to detect the few serious attacks and plots against the U.S. homeland, such as the Fort Hood, Texas, shooting that left thirteen dead, the so-called underwear bomber plot, or the 2009 Christmas Day bomb attempt, which was thwarted not by one of the almost one million individuals with top-secret clearances employed to find lone terrorists but by an alert airline passenger who saw smoke coming from a seatmate. In the Times Square bombing, an alert vendor called the police after he saw smoke coming out of a parked SUV. Even when the U.S. pays more than $5 billion for 1 million employees with security clearances to hunt members of Al-Qaeda, absolutely security cannot exist. The security of the West is organically linked to that of the rest of the world. And U.S. leaders must think twice before pursuing counterterrorism measures which alienate Muslim public opinion and breed homegrown terrorists.
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The war with Al-Qaeda is over. Western leaders must level with their citizens: Al-Qaeda poses only a security irritant, not a serious threat. Terrorism cannot be eradicated with drone attacks or even massive military interventions, all of which are, in any case, costly. Rather than battling against a mythic foe, the U.S. and Western powers should expedite the withdrawal of soldiers from Muslim territories where their presence is a painful reminder of the European colonial legacy of domination and subjugation.

Further, the U.S. and others offer assistance in rebuilding Yemen and Pakistan's institutions and empowering them to address those serious localized threats, yet resist the temptation of turning the struggle into a war between Al-Qaeda and the West. Taking up the anti-Western mantle is the only option for the survival of localized Al-Qaeda groups, and it behooves the United States and its allies not to give them a chance.

Tyranny, dismal social conditions, authoritarian political systems, and the absence of hope provide the fuel that powers radical, absolutist ideologies in the Muslim world. It is not enough to focus on the violent ideology of Al-Qaeda without devoting sufficient attention to the social conditions that give rise to it. If the Arab awakenings of the past year manage to fill the gap of legitimate political authority, they will annihilate the last dregs of Al-Qaeda and like-minded local branches. Only then will Al-Qaeda, like Osama bin Laden, not only die, but, finally, be allowed to die.

Fawaz A. Gerges is a Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics. His most recent book is The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda (Oxford University Press, 2011). I want to thank my research assistant, Ms. Dania Akkad, for editing the article.