Here’s something you don’t hear every day: al Qaeda may be our best ally in countering Islamist terrorism.
Why? Because it is in the wake of terrorism’s brutality and al Qaeda’s repugnant behavior where we find lasting success in our effort to contain and defeat al Qaeda’s violent ideology.
Defeating al Qaeda on the ground will require a sustained military effort in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. We’ll also have to hone our diplomatic and developmental efforts to ensure that once we do clear the ground, al Qaeda, its regional franchises, and local aspirants cannot easily move back in.
But in our battle for the hearts and minds of al Qaeda’s constituency, terrorists seem to be doing our job for us.
“Terrorists lose,” writes Professor Colin Gray of the University of Reading, “when their outrages delegitimze their political causes.” Just as it is all but impossible for terrorists – even those as dangerous as al Qaeda – to exact “truly major physical damage” on the capabilities of states, it is close to impossible for our counterterrorism efforts “to root out all of the would-be warriors-by-terror.” Instead, Gray concludes, “each side usually has to be encouraged to defeat itself politically.”
Here’s how al Qaeda is defeating itself today.
First, its regional franchise, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), effectively lost the Iraq insurgency because its brutality didn’t resonate with the locals. “In the beginning” explains Abdel Jabbar a former anti-US Iraqi insurgent leader based in Fallujah, “we thought al-Qaeda was an Islamic group wanting to fight Americans. So we supported them.” But then AQI “began to control us … and we started seeing bodies filling the streets. What opened the eyes of the people of Anbar [province, Iraq] to the vileness and the awfulness” of al Qaeda was “their attempt to take over Anbar by cutting off the heads of some of the leaders before daring their families to pick up their bloody remains.” Eventually, Jabbar led a local revolt against AQI that fed the “Anbar Awakening“, joined forces with the US-led Coalition, and kicked AQI out.
But AQI’s excesses reached beyond Iraq’s borders. When its Jordanian-born leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi, took responsibility for the hotel bombings that rocked Amman, Jordan in 2005, he was vociferous denounced by the Arab Street. In killing 60 mostly Sunni Muslim Jordanians, AQI’s barbarism tarnished al Qaeda’s image. Jordanians called for Zarqawi’s death and soured to al Qaeda’s message. The lesson here is that though Zarqawi organized a tactical terrorist success, the way he did so lead to AQI’s eventual demise and worse, turned Zarqawi into an al Qaeda liability.
Second, some of al Qaeda’s regional allies are following AQI’s footsteps. Al Shabaab, a Somali terrorist organization proscribed in Canada, is reported to have recently lost significant sources of funding as a result of its brutal suicide attack in Kampala, Uganda in July 2010. The sophisticated attack targeted crowds watching the 2010 FIFA World Cup and killed over 70 people. And just like AQI’s hotel bombing, al Shabaab’s Kampala attack was a tactical success but proved a strategic failure.
According to a recent report by The Jamestown Foundation, the Kampala bombings compelled some al Shabaab supporters living in the Somali diaspora to turn their backs on the group. Citing a Somali-born Canadian who once managed al Shabaab fund-raising in North America, the report explains that after the Kampala attacks, “Somalis considered al-Shabaab as not serving the interests of the country or people of Somalia.” While some Western Somalis had once supported al Shabaab “for the sake of God and country”, they were “all disappointed by the Kampala attack.” The subsequent funding crunch has diminished al Shabaab’s capabilities and has forced the group to turn to far less popular means to drum up some cash: it’s looting Somali businesses, coercing local Somalis, raising taxes at port services, and slashing forests to turn profits from the illegal sale of charcoal. This isn’t a winning strategy.
And third, some of al Qaeda’s Western aspirants are turning against it. In October, Jason Walters, a Dutch Muslim convert imprisoned for his participation with the Hofstad Group, a radical homegrown organization whose leader was responsible for the 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, renounced Islamism. From his prison cell, he wrote a “review document” in which he describes his former ideology as “morally bankrupt.” Though skeptics argue that Walters, whose 2006 conviction is being retried, may have written the letter in hopes of a reduced sentence, his motivation doesn’t detract from the influence the mea culpa may have on other Western radicals. Walters writes: “With horror have I watched how a once lofty ‘struggle for freedom’ … has turned into a bloody escalation of violence, sectarianism, and religious mania. Unheard of cruelty and crimes have been committed in the process. People in countries that were freed by Islamists … have collectively repudiated the ideology in which name they were ‘liberated’. This has forced me to reconsider my viewpoints critically.”
Al Qaeda’s self-defeat is far from certain. The organization has a knack for reconstituting its movement and rebuilding its base of operation. But if al Qaeda continues to repel the very people it needs most to ensure its continued survival, it will have done us a favour. And by all means, let’s give them a hand. We can encourage al Qaeda’s demise by widely reporting its excesses, better illustrating the human costs of terrorism, promoting anti-terrorism movements when they arise, and supporting former terrorists who denounce violence.