A High Price: The Triumphs & Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism by Daniel Byman (Oxford University Press: 2011) pp. 464. By Judith Gosewisch

Written by admin on March 1st, 2015

A High Price relates the story of Israeli counterterrorism policies and practice, and the balance between tactics and strategy from the early years of the Israeli state to the first decade of the 21st century. The author, Daniel Byman, is a professor in the Security Studies programme at Georgetown University and Senior Fellow and Director of Research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institute. In an interview on SOAS radio , Byman confers how the idea for this book first came to life whilst he was doing research in the Middle East in 2002. Ruminating about potential strategies for US counterterrorism in the wake of 9/11, Byman turned to Israel. For almost seventy years, Israel has been fighting terrorist attacks and through trial and error, has managed to stand up against terrorism. In Byman’s words (p.3) “…Virtually every counterterror instrument that Americans debate today was pioneered by Israelis in their desperate attempt to find some answer to their own terrorism conundrum.”

A High Price strives to explore and analyse the lessons we can learn from Israel’s successes and failures. The book is divided into an introduction and five sections, each of which reflect upon different periods of Israeli counterterrorism based upon the nature of the adversary and Israel’s response. The thread connecting the various sections in this book concerns the dilemma of choosing measures that hopefully guarantee the safety of the state on a daily basis whilst working towards long term peace.

A High Price explores Israel’s use of targeted killings, interrogations and efforts to improve Israel’s defences –most notably the security barrier separating Israel from the Palestinian territories. Byman has shown how the implementation of counterterrorism measures –or lack thereof- generally resulted in good immediate tactical results, but created a ripple effect with more hate and continued-if not increased- violence in the long run. Targeted killings proved effective in temporarily crippling an organisation, but did not stop the socio-political movement behind it. Nor did it prevent organisations from regaining momentum. The separation barrier kept out the suicide bombers, but increased animosity between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples and caused an international outcry.
The book might have benefited from a stronger theoretical framework. Although A High Price analyses asymmetrical warfare, it fails to fully reflect on the implications of this in its findings and conclusions. Byman presents an either/or choice between a strategy of continually combating terrorism through deterrence to temporarily secure the state or implementing non-violent measures aimed at establishing long term peace. He suggests a dual-approach is necessary, but does not analyse how these approaches can complement rather than undermine each other. Byman offers an orthodox approach trying to understand terrorism; readers seeking a more nuanced and complex understanding of the subject offered by the School of (Critical) Terrorism Studies will not find it here.

Perhaps too entangled with the War on Terror narrative, the book is encumbered with a static view on how the nature of the state- and non-state group’s goals and policies may change over time and fails to explore how this influences the way in which the game is played. For example, leading up to the peace negotiations of the 1990s, the PLF hijacked the Achille Lauro. This act could be considered as an attempt of this PLO member-group to fortify its position at the negotiation table with Israel, with the latter also being a hesitant partner for peace. Nevertheless, Byman’s sole comment on the matter is how, “while Fatah moved toward negotiations other PLO groups proved less amenable” (p. 75). Byman ignores how the course state-actors and “terrorist” organisations take is affected by the other party’s actions and prescribes one interpretation of the events.

Contributing to this conceptual stagnation is Byman’s definition of terrorism (p. 7) as “a non-state actor’s use of or threat of violence against non-combatants for political reasons to produce a broader psychological effect.” This definition excludes the possibility that a state can use violence one might interpret as terror, legitimise its use, and refuses to acknowledge that state violence itself may be part of the cycle of violence. The definition precludes any discussion that the causes of terrorism arise from varied and vexing social inequities and injustices. Furthermore, this definition fails to recognise the fluidity of the terrorist label. For example, Byman recognizes that organisations such as Hamas, Hizballah or Fatah, are not solely or always aiming to terrorise but also undertake charitable and political endeavours. But he insists on labelling them primarily as terrorist organisations, arguing (p.7) that to ‘not use the term terrorist would miss an important aspect of these groups’. It is difficult to believe that anyone would overlook or forget Hamas’s or Hizballah’s use of violent tactics. But Byman’s failure to contextualise such organizations results in few suggestions on how terrorists may be incentivised to further their interests through non-violent means.

Byman’s traditional analytical approach of viewing terrorists first and foremost as perpetrators of violence hinders the possibility to (re-)humanise the subject and actually understand what motivates them. This, in turn, is vital in preventing individuals from engaging in acts of terrorism in the first place. By emphasising their terrorist nature, Byman fails to fully contextualise organisations such as Hamas, Hizballah or Fatah. As a result, A High Price offers few and limited suggestions on how terrorists may be incentivised to further their interests through non-violent means.

A High Price is caught in the dilemma of being unable to choose either in favour of short term tactics or long-term strategy. Byman advocates a political solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict which ends – not surprisingly – on a cautious, dispirited note. He instructs (p. 381) how “counterterrorism, even at its most impressive, comes with trade-offs, and most of the time effectiveness simply means fewer attacks or less deadly ones rather than a complete end to violence” and rightfully states that there are ‘no easy answers’ to the question on how to combat terrorism.

     All in all, the book contains a detailed analysis of asymmetrical warfare by one of the foremost experts on counterterrorism and the Middle East. It is based on a wealth of data accumulated through, amongst others, interviews with authoritative figures on both the Israeli and Arab side and as such, is a valuable contribution to the literature on the subject. A High Price guarantees an interesting read for any student of counterterrorism and the Arab-Israeli conflict in particular, despite its equivocal conclusions on how best to end terrorism.

Judith Gosewisch received a Master’s degree in Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding from the Durham Global Security Institute at Durham University, U.K. and currently is doing research and writing in the field of (Critical) Terrorism Studies.



Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia by Toby Craig Jones. (Harvard University Press, 2010), 312 pages including index and references. Reviewed by Jaco Stoop

Written by Rex on January 21st, 2015

     Desert Kingdom deals with the history of modern Saudi Arabia and the role played by oil, water and other resources in the coming about of the Saudi state. Jones pays special attention to internal Saudi geopolitics. He uses geopolitics in its literal sense: the politics of the earth and its resources. As Jones and other authors such as Stuart Elden (The Birth of Territory) and Timothy Mitchell (Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil) argue, geopolitics is about the political implications of the earth and its resources; In other words, political decisions are shaped by geology and the manner in which natural resources are exploited. Looking at the history of Saudi Arabia through the lens of geology enables Jones to highlight previously neglected aspects of the Saudi state such as the very crucial role played by oil and water in the repression of its Shia minority.

The key to controlling the whole of the Arabian Peninsula lies with controlling the Peninsula’s geological resources: its water supply and its oil. However, the Saudi state does not want merely control over these resources, but rather seeks to exploit them for political reasons. Especially in the fourth chapter about the Eastern Province and the al-Hasa oasis, Jones discusses the expansion of Saudi power from the capital of Riyadh to the periphery and the resource-rich east in the light of geopolitics. This expansion and exploitation of resources has implications for the Shia population, mostly located in the Eastern Province, as the author clearly describes.

The first chapter, titled “The Nature of the State” loosely outlines the theoretical assumptions of Jones. He is mostly interested in the internal dynamics of the Saudi state, “the ruling strategies deployed by the state to secure its authority and security domestically, and the challenges to power it faced in the twentieth century.” In subsequent chapters, Jones more or less chronologically discusses the forging of the Saudi state from the end of the nineteenth century until today.

Desert Kingdom begins with the discovery of oil and the founding of the most important oil company, Aramco, and the exploitation of Saudi oil. Jones then describes the implications of the search for water and the unequal distribution of wealth on the population. Regarding the distribution of wealth and access to resources, Jones stresses how the Shia have been marginalized, both for religious reasons (some Saudi clerics do not even recognize Shiites as Muslims) and because their alleged ties with Shiite Iran, by the Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia. In the later chapters of the book, the author analyzes more recent developments in Saudi society, Saudi agricultural ambitions and the “return to faith” as Jones puts it, meaning that religious arguments became more important for the Saudi government and that the role of the clergy increased in Saudi society. This change in policy was mainly focused on improving the House of Saud’s Islamic credentials in the face of challenges from conservative clergymen to the House’s position as the protector of the two Holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Jones opposes the claims found in many other studies on Saudi Arabia that Saudi rulers and society are traditional and that they are both determined by “a timeless Islam.” Unfortunately, most of his criticism of other works on Saudi Arabia is tucked away in the endnotes. These notes contain quite essential information on Jones’s assumptions and views. His contrarian views that Saudi society and its rulers are essentially not conservative and traditionally Islamic, and his idea that the rulers are at odds with the peninsula’s Bedouin, whom the state seeks to relocate and urbanize, is central to the book’s thesis.. They certainly deserved more attention than a few endnotes and should have been included in the body of the text. Nonetheless, Jones presents his arguments well, and in a clear and straightforward manner.

A recurring theme in Desert Kingdom is the way in which the Saudi government has used science and technology for political gain. The formation of the modern Saudi state has been depoliticized and, in order to fully exploit its oil, the Saudi government has approached many political issues through a perspective of scientific and technological development, as Jones describes in the third chapter. He emphasizes the very crucial role the United States government played in the development of the Saudi state and its ability to gain control over its oil. The American government has been involved in numerous projects ranging from the exploration of Saudi oil resources to anthropological and sociological investigations into the population. In contrast, the British seem wholly absent in these developments.

One downside of Jones’s geopolitical approach to the formation of the Saudi state is that it neglects other important aspects of Saudi society. Jones’s focus on the Eastern Province and dissent of the Shia population causes the reader to be left in the dark on issues such as the internal politics of the House of Saud. For example, Jones discusses the 1979 uprisings in the Eastern Province but only briefly refers to the attack on Mecca’s Great Mosque in November 1979. Jones does consider influences from Iran on the Shia population of eastern Saudi Arabia and rightly rejects conspiracies on Iranian machinations and support for the protests. However, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy towards Iran and the Middle East in general is largely left untouched.

Desert Kingdom makes clear that geology forged modern Saudi Arabia and Arabia’s natural resources should be the focus of studying Saudi internal politics. Jones has very much succeeded in providing that insightful and original approach, supported by his thorough and well substantiated research of primary sources.

Jaco Stoop is a graduate student of Modern History & International Relations at the University of Groningen (the Netherlands). He holds a bachelor’s degree in Languages and Cultures of the Middle East and has spent over a year in Cairo, Egypt, to study Arabic. Jaco also maintains a blog on Middle Eastern affairs.


The Future of the Arab Gulf Monarchies in the Age of Uncertainties by Mohammed El-Katiria. Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College (June 2013) 38 pages.

Written by admin on November 20th, 2013

     The primary audience of the U.S. Army War College is members of the U.S. national security bureaucracy, weighted heavily toward members of the Department of Defense. The college’s web site says its students are officers from all branches of the military plus “senior civilians from key agencies throughout the U.S. Government.”

      With that said, Mohammed El-Katiria’s analysis of the Gulf’s future in the wake of the Arab Spring will add to that growing sense of unease shared among U.S. security managers. While the Gulf monarchies ostensibly appear composed, beneath that calm are deep, unresolved social, ethnic, political, and economic frictions. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are diverse but El-Katiria reminds us that they are all run by small, ruling families that ban authentic political parties. There are no checks and balances to control the powers of the ruling families who appointed themselves to key government positions and accrue many privileges, internal stability is undermined by fighting within the ruling families over plumb positions, and clear rules for leadership successions are lacking.

      The kingdoms’ autocratic dictates once tolerated by a non-politicized populace are no longer tenable. Economic and educational changes, coupled with the internet and social media, has resulted in a politicized youth. A 2011 survey found that 60 percent of the GCC youth considered democracy to be their top priority. El-Katiria argues that the Gulf has entered “a new era” where “socio-economic grievances” have “transformed into a growing political quest for liberties.” Bahrain and Oman has witnessed the most widespread protests and exercised the most brutal government responses in the Gulf, but similar dissent has appeared on a smaller scale in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. The ruling families seem ill suited to make the requisite reforms. Their default response to increase the size of cash handouts to its citizens to quite discontent has its limits. It’s a short term stratagem but not a long term fix for a frustrated youth seeking substantive social change. The “GCC are part and parcel of the Arab World,” El-Katiria notes, and “they cannot escape the influence of the revolutions and political transitions that follow them.”

      Enveloping the kingdoms’ internal tensions is the rise of political Islam. The election of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was correctly portrayed as a “horrifying scenario for the GCC rulers,” making the GCC’s support for the military takeover in Egypt unsurprising. But Egypt’s turmoil and Saudi Arabia’s support for Salafists in Syria poses only to exacerbate the Shia-Sunni split in the Gulf. The systematic discrimination by the state apparatuses against Shia citizens in most GCC countries, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, El-Katiria observes, “has structurally damaged the political legitimacy of the rulers and the social cohesion.”

       Iran stands as the most significant external threat confronting the GCC. Unceasing fears that the Islamic Republic may be building nuclear weapons has obscured the fact that “tensions between Iran and most GCC countries have historical, ideological, and geostrategic roots, which make their animosity a structural feature.” The monarchies’ immediate anxiety is Iran’s hegemonic regional ambitions. Such concerns are not unfounded: Iran’s Revolutionary Guards echoes the Shah’s ambition to be the “protector” of the Gulf and Ayatollah Khomeini’s aspiration to export a Shia-led revolution resonates among the monarchies today. But a serious lapse on El-Katiria’s part is not noting the dearth of hard evidence substantiating claims that Iran is behind the GCC’s domestic troubles; rather, the evidence shows the discontent arises from legitimate domestic grievances.

      El-Katiria advises that U.S. interests in the Gulf – the supply of oil and freedom of movement for the U.S. military – is best served by preventing the rise of any hegemonic power, meaning Iran but by implication, also Saudi Arabia. He warns the overthrow of any monarchy or a shift in support from the GCC away from the U.S. would severely disrupt U.S. military operations in the region, including Afghanistan. El-Katiria’s recommendations are predictable: increase U.S. military training and armament to the monarchies against Iran and “encourage” them to make substantial changes to their political system.

      El-Katiria is in an untenable bind: his readership needs a realistic assessment of the Gulf’s stability as well as advice on how to advance U. S. interests, as currently defined by U.S. security managers. He can’t – and doesn’t – explain why well entrenched, ruling families, lavishly supplied with U.S. weaponry, would voluntarily give up their wealth, power and privileges in the name of democracy and stability. It’s a quandary that resists a simple explanation. Similarly, his suggestion that Iran poses a seriously offensive threat to the GCC, necessitating the sale of more weapons to the monarchies, is not credible.

     Similar omissions in El-Katiria’s monograph are discussion that the monarchies face pending food and water shortages, dissipation of its oil and gas resources, and environmental degradation. The materialization of such troubles will exacerbate existing social tensions within the monarchies and inexorably will cause further social upheaval. El-Katiria’s critique of the GCC may unnerve his readership but he’s pulled his punches – the situation is worse than he writes.


Dubai; Gilded Cage by Syed Ali (New Haven: Yale University Press: 2010), 240pages, index; Dubai; The City as Corporation by Ahmed Kanna (Minnealpolis: University of Minnesota Press: 2011) 262 pages, index. Reviewed by Kaveh Ehsani

Written by admin on December 11th, 2012

In recent years there has been a spate of social science books published about various countries of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) but, understandably, Dubai takes pride of place and the majority of these studies focus on this glittering city-state that has energetically branded itself as the hyper modern and hyper globalized hub of the Persian Gulf. Both these books under review are welcomed and excellent attempts to debunk the celebratory tone of the earlier literature that portrayed Dubai’s transformation in glowing positive light. These books ask the uncomfortable but necessary questions about the social and human costs of the Dubai (and by extension of the GCC) project, by looking at the coercive and often horrifying underbelly of the city-state’s recent development history.  They also tell us much about how Dubai fits within the neoliberal global order: Far from being an exceptional case of Middle Eastern exotic experiment in conspicuous consumption, authoritarian politics, and racial discrimination, Dubai comes across as the epitome of a market driven global order. The experiment that is present day Dubai links tourism, hyper capitalism, unabashed consumerism, and spectacular architecture, that are built on the back of exploitative labor practices and a hollowing out of social and cultural norms that end up leaving everyone involved in the Dubai project with more money in their pocket (unless they are hit by the global economic downturn), but also significantly degraded and alienated, be they powerless construction workers, East European prostitutes, mercenary western professionals, predatory real estate developers, or indigenous citizens living off of unearned commissions from greedy international investors.

Both books are ethnographic in structure, and aim to give voice to the experiences and the existence of the multitudes of temporary expatriates who make up 90% of Dubai’s population. These expatriates range from casual workers to merchants, professionals, speculating investors, maids, prostitutes, camel jockeys, and university professors, whose experiences and contributions are differentiated and made part of the story of Dubai Inc. They come from all over the world, but their diversity does not make Dubai a cosmopolitan haven of collaborative modernity. In fact, both books demonstrate through carefully constructed and nuanced analysis how keeping the expatriate population segregated and ghettoized from each other and from the indigenous population is the prerequisite of making the Dubai project work. This systematic system of social, cultural, and geographic segregation takes place through administrative, economic, as well as coercive means. Work visas and residence permits are issued on strictly temporary basis (2-6 years), virtually no one can become an immigrant, even those born and raised in the Sheykhdom of expat parents, hence the state of “permanent impermanence” (Ali) experienced by all expatriates who service and maintain the 10% of the indigenous citizens and the corporate city state that is virtually the property of the al Makhtoum dynasty.

These books are very similar in some aspects, but also different. They complement each other very well. Syed Ali is a sociologist who was deported from Dubai when his research on South Asian workers got too uncomfortable for the authorities. His book is written in a very readable style, intended for a cross section of academic as well as interested general public (even the fonts are bigger and easier to read). He does not mince words when discussing Dubai’s ‘plastic culture’ and vapid consumerism. But this is not a polemical exercise since Ali shows how and why this cultural vapidity is structural and a byproduct of the deliberate impermanence that shapes everyone’s life in Dubai: If you are there only to make money, are afforded no serious legal protection, or the possibility of forging personal attachment to the place and people, you cannot weave a fabric of meanings and emotions that take the form of meaningful art or substantive cultural representations.  This is true of the citizens also, who come across as distant and often hidden behind the walls of their family compounds, an alien minority in their own country. Ali’s most provocative topic is how work and labor shape social life in Dubai. He studies the subaltern classes (workers, maids, prostitutes, camel jockeys) who service the Sheykhdom (Chapter 3, aptly titled “Iron Chains”) and what motivates those who come mostly from Asia (the Subcontinent, Iran, Phillipines) or Eastern Europe, to subject themselves to such degrading conditions. His answer is complex: not only the pull factors (money, jobs) but also the push factors (expectations at home, a culture of neoliberal entrepreneurship, regardless of the human consequences) keeps the wheels turning. Ali also discusses the institutional means by which the labor system is maintained: The kefala/sponsorship system keeps workers dependent on contractors at home, and employees and bureaucrats in Dubai. It also acts in similar way regarding corporate investors and expatriate professionals who are obligated by law to forge relations of dependency and partnerships with Dubai natives (Ali, pp. 26-31, Chapter 7). In short, while professional expatriates (mostly from the west) and Dubai citizens live in the privileged bubble of a  “gilded cage” (Chs 4, 5) where all they do is make easy money or shop and drink, those who work for them make do with a precarious existence in vast and filthy labor camps like Sonapur (91), or are at the mercy of precarious laws and volatile housing markets.

Ahmed Kanna is an anthropologist who is interested in analyzing the social and political life of Dubai through its built environment. In other words, he is more focused in investigating how the social and political processes that shape the city-state can be analyzed through its architecture and spatial forms. This is a more strictly academic book, but it is also well written, although it suffers a bit from the ‘dissertation syndrome’, where the book is not quite free from the often unnecessary entanglement with the outlining of various theoretical positions and academic jargon that are a requisite part of dissertations but do not necessarily contribute to a more insightful analysis of the topic at hand. Despite this shortcoming the book is an original and excellent analysis of how, as the book’s title puts it, the city was reshaped as a corporation. This process involved a number of historical shifts that the book’s initial historical chapters outline. Lacking substantial oil reserves, compared to its better-endowed sister confederate states of UAE, Dubai sought early on to diversify its economy and to carve out a more boldly visible role for itself on the international stage. The advent of oil, the end of cold war, and the changing geopolitics of the Persian Gulf witnessed the turning of Dubai into a conspicuous center of global shipping and transport, tourism and entertainment, conspicuous consumption, and speculative construction and real estate development. Kanna does an excellent job of outlining how this globalization of Dubai undid the ruling bargain between (mostly Iranian and south Asian) merchants and the al Makhtoum rulers, and left the ruling dynasty the virtual Sultanist/patrimonial (to use Weberian terminology) owner/rulers of the city sate. The ruling family and their parastatal corporations enjoy virtually total territorial monopoly, as well as a monopoly of defining the modernity that defines Dubai’s ongoing trajectory, and that has uprooted any meaningful connection to history and local social relations. This disembedded commercial modernity is not a standalone, it enjoys active international support and approval by what Kanna calls ‘orientalism in reverse’, or the celebratory glorification of the entrepreneurial genius of the al Makhtoum ruling dynasty by western (as well as Middle Eastern) journalists, policy makers, and global professionals. This support was considated when the search for reliable Arab allies amidst what was seen as a sea of hostile Muslims became part of the ongoing pathology of the mainstream Western public sphere, especially after 9/11 and the ongoing fiascos of Iraqi and Afghan invasions and the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

The most exciting segments of Kanna’s book are his analysis of the role of ‘starchitects”, big name architects accompanied by speculative real estate developers, who undertake enormous (in terms of costs, commissions, and prices) prestige projects in Dubai. The real estate ponzi schemes that follow these projects are an important part of what has shaped the city scape of present day Dubai. Kanna then looks at the other spaces (the vanished villages, the work camps and workers’ quarters, the spaces of conspicuous consumption, etc.) that have grown in the shadow of these architectural wonders. Paraphrasing Kanna’s words, the social and cultural reality of Dubai Inc. is etched in its built environment.

Together these books offer an outstanding understanding of Dubai, not as an exception and exotic oddity, but as an integral component of the neo liberal global order which has nurtured and sustains the corporate city state. I highly recommend both these books. They are wonderful sources for undergraduate and graduate classrooms, as well as the interested critical reader.


 Kaveh Ehsani is an assistant professor of International Studies Department at DePaul University, Chicago



Israel’s Palestinians: the Conflict Within by Illan Peleg and Dov Waxman (Cambridge University Press: 2011) 262 pgs. Reviewed by Uri Gopher

Written by admin on October 29th, 2012

Israel’s independence in 1948 heralded the establishment of a homeland for the Jews but persisting within its parameters has been a large Arab Palestinian minority estimated to make up 20% of its population (a figure that includes the Jewish settlements in the west bank and the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem). With rare exceptions, animosities run deep between the two communities where discrimination against the Palestinian minority is widespread and sharp inequalities and mistrust separate Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. October 2000 witnessed a convulsion of intercommunal violence when the state deployed heavy police forces to put down the protests of Palestinian citizens against the events that marked the beginning of the second Intifada, resulting in the deaths of thirteen Arab protestors by police gunfire.

What’s remarkable about this state of affairs is how little attention it receives outside the internal Israeli discourse, largely because Israel has no interest in internationalizing this divide, which it would rather frame (and have others frame, too) as a domestic affair. In this book, however, Ilan Peleg and Dov Waxman convincingly argue that continuing to focus on the “external” Jewish-Palestinian conflict in the West Bank and Gaza at the expense of the “internal” conflict portends disaster for Israel’s already strained democracy and a complete collapse of the two-state solution.  The authors put forth concrete proposals to effectively ‘manage’ the internal conflict, thus providing a roadmap for the internal Jewish-Palestinian conflict, as they often refer to this divide, to complement the often-discussed, roadmap to the external Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These suggestions are based on the authors’ in-depth analysis of the Israeli case-study as well as drawing on their combined expertise of the way majority-minority tensions have been dealt with in other democracies.

The book is meant to sound as an alarm and instill a sense of urgency, and it does so quite compellingly. The logic behind this urgent call for action can roughly be stated as follows: 1) Only a holistic approach that takes into account both external and internal Jewish-Palestinian relations can provide both parties enough stability and viability; 2) Most efforts have heretofore focused on the external conflict, which has far too long overshadowed the internal one; 3) Israel’s intentional and unintentional mismanagement of the internal conflict “courts disaster”, in their words. This is already apparent in current anti-democratic trends that may further undermine democracy in the region, lead to civil unrest, large-scale violence and a complete collapse of the two-state solution; 4) Incremental steps towards meeting the demands set by the internal conflict will not suffice. Major changes in the definition of state, increased provision of both individual and collective rights and new social contract between the Jewish majority and the Palestinian minority are necessary and still possible to achieve, albeit difficult.

The first part of the book provides an in-depth account of the “conflict within”, to which this book is dedicated. Those already familiar with the issues discussed – the Palestinian minority’s identity, history, politics, the extent of inequality and discrimination that exists, the majority’s views and attitudes towards the minority – may find that this part of the book adds little to their knowledge. Still, most readers, regardless of their background and experience, will appreciate the framing and narrative style in which information is conveyed.

The temporal thrust of this book is the present and future of Arab-Jewish relations. The first section of the book largely focused on the analysis of the events of the past decade and the authors’ account of the events and development of the conflict is fair and informative. One minor exception was their treatment of what is termed “the vision documents”. These refer to a series of four documents published in 2006-2007 that were produced by different Palestinian organizations, intellectuals, academics and political activists, all Israeli citizens. These documents present a harsh critique of the way the Palestinian minority has been treated by the state and set clear demands to the Israeli state and political system. Peleg and Waxman analyze these documents in great detail, exploring their implications for the future of Jewish-Arab relations. Though their analysis is comprehensive and persuasive, the authors tend to focus only on that part of the vision documents directed at the Jewish majority whilst ignoring those parts that feature self-criticism and challenge the Palestinian minority. As such, the authors’ replicate the manner in which these documents were presented to the Jewish majority, which is mostly in threatening terms.

The fact of the matter is that these documents also encountered heavy opposition from Palestinians in Israel. This was because all the documents recognized explicitly or implicitly the existing Israeli state as the point of reference and did not challenge that or relate to the status of a Palestinian state. They also referred little to the Palestinians living elsewhere. In addition, some of the documents were also highly critical of Palestinian society, especially towards its treatment of disempowered factions within the Palestinian society. These details should have been included in the authors’ analysis of these documents, so as to provide a fuller picture of their meaning, especially since they contain promising indicators for the minority’s commitment and willingness to enhance principles of liberal democracy.    

The second section of the book turns to suggesting new ways for significantly improving Jewish-Palestinian relations. The authors’ grand strategy for how Israel could better meet the needs of its Palestinian minority so as to enhance their sense of belonging and loyalty to the state includes three main elements:

1) A new state definition: despite Israel’s self-definition as “Jewish and Democratic state”, the former has been much more forcefully maintained than the latter. Based on their assumption that a re-calibration between the Jewish and democratic commitments is essential, the authors creatively propose to define Israel as “the Jewish homeland and a state of all its citizens”. Changing the existing formula from “Jewish state” to “Jewish homeland” the authors believe would soften the collective definition without altogether eliminating some Jewish collective rights, deemed crucial by the authors, in-order to reach compromise. The designation of “a state of all its citizens” granting legal equality to all citizens as “owners” of the state and providing members of the Palestinian minority a measure of recognition and protection which, together with other elements of this strategy, could move Israel towards a more inclusive and stable future.

2) A new rights regime: the authors propose a series of policies meant to enhance both the individual and collective rights of Palestinians in Israel as a distinct national minority. These policies would ameliorate internal tensions and reduce the future likelihood of large-scale inter-communal bloodshed. This list includes: establishing functional autonomy for Palestinians in some areas of public life, improving the overall economic conditions of Israeli Arabs through long-term development plans and equitable funding arrangements, adopting an aggressive anti-discriminatory policy, increasing the amount of land available to Arab municipalities, initiating affirmative action programs, and formally recognizing the main representative institutions of the Palestinian minority and strengthening the status of Arabic as an official language of the country. At first blush some of these recommendations may seem far-fetched to some but almost all of these have been raised at different points in time by prominent Israeli figures and scholars, including by the Orr Commission, the official state commission of inquiry into the October 2000 events.

3) A new socio-political contract between the majority and the minority: the Palestinian minority’s willingness to enroll in a voluntary civilian service, in lieu of the mandatory military service imposed on the Jewish majority, would lead to the reassessment of common conventions in both Jewish and Palestinian societies and help foster good relations between the communities. However, this notion is less developed in the book as compared with the other two elements.

Peleg and Waxman make clear that they write in the hope of avoiding future bloodshed. They want to assure the success and viability of a two-state solution because “there is absolutely no way Israeli Jews will accept a one-state solution. They will staunchly resist this, even at the cost of war.” (p.230). In recent years, however, a growing number of scholars and public figures, among them Jewish and Palestinian ones, have challenged this two-state consensus by calling for a one-state solution and/or claiming that the former is no longer achievable. Peleg and Waxman do not in any way relate to these recent trends, which are necessarily linked to possible solutions for the internal conflict. This is somewhat surprising, given that one-state supporters, like the authors, share the conviction that a solution to the Jewish-Palestinian conflict needs to address both the internal and external conflicts. While there is much sense in tapping into the existing paradigm of a two-state solution as a starting point from which pragmatic change may be initiated, the authors were intellectually amiss for not at least widening their theoretical scope to include possible ethno-national scenarios, even if they do not support them. .

For starters, it is not clear that the attitudes and emotional reactions towards a one-state solution by those who oppose it will be significantly different than their reactions towards the kinds of ground-breaking proposals set forth by the authors, as evident in the reluctance to adopt hardly any of these proposed measures to date. If prevailing attitudes and emotional reactions are key factors in determining which solutions should be addressed and considered in the book, it is an argument that could serve to dismiss the authors’ own propositions.

More problematic is the authors’ reliance on current demographics in “Israel proper”- inside the green-line – to guide the assessment of potential applicability of different theoretical frameworks used elsewhere in the world with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian case. For example, in page 157 the authors state that “In general, although consociationalism[1] might work in a demographically balanced ethno-national situation, such as Belgium or Northern Ireland, it is unlikely to work in countries where one group enjoys a clear demographic and political advantage. Canada, Estonia, Israel, Slovakia, Spain and Sri-Lanka are some examples”. Since the authors’ comparative unit of analysis is the Palestinian citizens of Israel who make up roughly 20% of Israeli population (16.5% if East-Jerusalem Palestinian residents are excluded from the analysis) the authors’ decision to omit any discussion of solutions that fall outside the two-state paradigm because of its inapplicability to the Israeli case seems plausible. However, since current estimates, including official ones, show that Palestinians already make up over  50% of the population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, which is the prism used by one-state supporters, this represents the kind of a more “balanced ethno-national situation” that the authors themselves state might lead to different conclusions.

This omission, though, does not in any way detract from the important contribution the authors make in shedding light on possible holistic ways to move forward on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their book may well constitute a “last call” for two-state supporters; a cry the authors indicate towards the end of their book may be too late.


Uri Gopher is a recent graduate of the Mid-Career Masters in Public Administration program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and served until recently as the Director of Policy Change at The Abraham Fund Initiatives in Israel.

[1] Consociationalism, a concept developed by Arend Lijphart, is part of the mechanisms included in power-sharing and was one of the demands put forth in one of the four “vision documents”  written by intellects of the Arab-Palestinian minority in Israel, discussed earlier.


The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival by Hirsh Goodman (Public Affairs, 2011). 256 pages.

Written by admin on August 1st, 2012

Hirsh Goodman started his career as the Jerusalem Post’s astute defense correspondent; 30 years later, he is now an associate at the influential Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. With such mainstream credentials, his schizophrenia-like assessment of Iran’s threat to the Jewish state and blurry vision of a two-state solution was wholly unexpected.

In the opening pages, Goodman invokes all the trash-talk typically associated with Iran: “maniacally dedicated to Israel’s destruction,” a threat unmatched “since Hitler,” “dream[s]” of hitting Israel with nuclear weapons, and immune to traditional deterrence theory. Yet 15 pages later, he’s suggesting that deterrence does work, explaining that if attacked by Iran, a nuclear armed Israel would inflict a “devastating” retaliatory blow. He cautions against a preemptive Israeli attack, warning that it would not fully destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities and only trigger a “vast and enduring” cycle of retaliation between the two countries. An “Iranian attack on Israel or an Israeli attack on Iran,” concludes Goodman, “is strategically nonsensical.”

Shortly after the book’s publication, Goodman had a change of heart. He now advocates attacking Iran, even hinting that tactical nuclear weapons should be used. Why the predicted cycle of violence between the Israel and Iran would be tolerable has not been explained.

Israel’s survival, Goodman argues, is not in question. The Jewish State’s superior armed forces thwart any serious military challenge from any Middle Eastern state. But issues will continue to plague Israel’s future stability and shape its character. One will be ceaseless attacks from Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations Goodman judges are wholly owned subsidiaries of the Islamic Republic. Such attacks will be painful and will elicit Israel’s retaliation but are something Israel can live with.

The more serious threat to Israel’s well-being is Palestinian nationalism and Israel’s West Bank settlements. Goodman is sympathetic to the Palestinians’ suffering and views the settlements as a political and moral disaster for Israel. He fears that if left unresolved, the occupation could intensify fractionalization between Israeli Arabs, national religious Zionists, and secular Jews and twist Israel into a “de facto theocracy.” He predicts that only when the “Palestinian issue is off the table” will Israel’s economy and culture flourish and its relations with the Arab world normalize.

But Goodman is willing to accommodate Palestinian nationalism only on Israeli terms. He opposes uprooting the larger settlements because of the violent upheaval it would cause in Israel. “Israel cannot be expected,” Goodman instructs, “to tear itself to pieces for the sake of peace.” The improbable alternative scenario he offers is for Israeli settlers to “live as good neighbors and control their violent and fanatic elements.” It’s not clear how this stance squares with his advise that Israel reconsider the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative offering Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdraw from the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Goodman’s final word is that if necessary, Israel should unilaterally impose a settlement of its own design.

Goodman’s favoritism toward Israel is expected; what is harder to accept is his refusal to recognize any legitimacy in the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign (BDS). He refuses to consider that after 60 years of occupation the international community may have a moral duty to pressure Israel to withdraw from the territories. He instead insists that BDS is nothing less than an insidious strategy to delegitimize Israel and undermine its right to exist. Goodman uncritically defends Israel’s 2008 war on Gaza, its 2010 attack on the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla”, and equates “unions in Norway” with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Jihad. This political myopia shuts down the meaningful political debate Goodman purportedly seeks and confirms his assessment that “how Israel will look in the future is as unpredictable as a flip of a coin.”


Muslim-American Terrorism in the Decade Since 9/11 – Charles Kurzman. Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security (February 2012)

Written by admin on February 20th, 2012

The third annual report on Muslim-American terrorism showed twenty Muslim-Americans were indicted for violent terrorist plots in 2011, down from 26 the year before, bringing the total since 9/11 to 193 – just under twenty a year.  That number, while disconcerting, fails to support secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano’s 2011 assertion that the terrorist threat facing the United States “is at its most heightened state since” the 9/11 attacks. The numbers also belie the hyperbole flung from Congressman Peter King, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, that al-Qaeda has extensively infiltrated and radicalized the Muslim-American community.

The report recognizes that the threat of terrorism remains and radical Islamists continue to urge Muslim-Americans to engage in violence. But such calls have been ignored by the vast majority of Muslim-Americans, concludes the report’s author, Charles Kurzman. (Kurzman’s book, The Missing Martyrs, is reviewed below).

The study notes that two of the 20 terrorist suspects received training abroad, the plots were of limited competence and did not reflect the planning of sophisticated, well-trained Islamist operatives, they did not fit any demographic profile, and prison did not appear to be a major source of Islamic radicalization.

There was also a decline in the number of Muslim-Americans indicted for support of terrorism, falling from 27 individuals in 2010 to 8 in 2011. The total number of indictments for support for terrorism since 9/11 – conduct including financing, false statements, and other connections with terrorist plots – is 462. While any acts of terrorism or terrorist related conduct is abhorrent, that 28 Muslim-Americans, out a Muslim-American community numbering more than 2 million, were indicted for such conduct in 2011 underscores the community’s low level of radicalization.

The study is the third such report issued from the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, a joint project between Duke University, University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), and RTI International, focusing on Muslim-American terrorism suspects and perpetrators.

Previous Triangle reports similarly dispelled myths about how Muslim-American opposition to Islamist terrorism is lackadaisical or nonexistent. One report found that “Muslim-American organizations and leaders have consistently condemned terrorist violence here and abroad since 9/11, arguing that such violence is strictly condemned by Islam”.  Such statements, Kurzman and his co-authors concluded, “were not just for public consumption, but were supported by local Muslim religious and community leaders, who consistently condemned political violence in public sermons and private conversations.”

The investigation found that Muslim-American leaders were not timid in confronting signs of radical Islam within their communities. “Muslim-Americans have adopted numerous internal self-policing practices to prevent the growth of radical ideology,” the report observed. This included “confronting individuals who express radical ideology or support for terrorism, preventing extremist ideologues from preaching in mosques, communicating concerns about radical individuals to law enforcement officials, and purging radical extremists from membership in local mosques,” as well as outreach programs to Muslim-American youth.

That Muslim-Americans often reached out to U.S. law enforcement to finger individuals suspected of terrorist inclinations was significant, another study found.  Kurzman determined that the largest single source of initial information (48 of 120 cases) to U.S. law enforcement involved tips from the Muslim-American community. Some of the tips came from family members of the accused but most stemmed from the general community. At least two Muslim-Americans judged by the community to be terrorist-prone because of their radical rhetoric later turned out to be police informants.



The Arab Gulf States: Beyond Oil and Islam by Sean Foley. (Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. 2010) 315 pages. Reviewed by Courtney Erwin.

Written by admin on January 29th, 2012

Since December 2010, when Tunisia kicked off the string of uprisings currently reorienting the political landscape in the Arab World, I have repeatedly been asked, “Will that happen in Qatar (where I live) or other countries in the Gulf?” While researched and written prior to the Arab Spring, Sean Foley’s book about the Arab Gulf States – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman – offers information and insights helpful in understanding how the Arab Gulf may accommodate its new regional environment.

Foley examines the Gulf’s socio-economic and political backdrop by starting in the 1930s and taking us through “the emergence of the modern Gulf” and into the present. He makes the point that today’s challenges in the Gulf predate the discovery of oil (in commercial quantities) in 1932, and that these states have been dealing with tough issues relating to foreign workers, gender, and a welfare system long before they became the focus of international media and politics.

The Arab Gulf States dashes many Western stereotypes of life and society in the Gulf.  In the field of education and gender, Foley shows the past decades having witnessed a radical increase in the number of educated Gulf Arab women, who have gone on to assume leadership positions throughout society. This phenomenon cuts across all states in the region; educational attainment and social progress have advanced in Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, and Kuwait. Oman has seen the largest gains in female students, where more women than men now attend school. In Saudi Arabia, between 1960 and 2000, female participation in the workforce grew as much as 691 percent.

Foley notes that the role of women in the Gulf continues to face cultural obstacles, but his depiction of the experience and quality of life for women in the region is appropriately nuanced and thoughtful. He points out that the Gulf’s social conservatives will increasingly face daunting challenges to traditional ways of life as a highly educated professional class of women overtakes men in professional advancement.

Foreign workers, who often are the majority of the population in some Gulf states, frequently are viewed as a threat to stability. But Foley shows that their presence is not new. The Gulf has never been homogenous but has always, since the time of the Prophet Muhammad, been host to diverse peoples including Jewish silversmiths, Catholic priests, Protestant missionaries, Hindu engineers, and Arab and Persian Shi’a Muslims. The influx of foreigners has always necessitated a healthy discussion among the Gulf countries about “inclusion, tolerance, and accommodation.”

Foley argues that the large presence of foreign residents forms an essential component of Gulf society and must continue for at least two reasons: their labor is critical to the region’s sustained economic growth and they significantly contribute to the area’s cultural enrichment. Unfortunately, the recent rise in nationalism has seen some Gulf states become less inclusive and accommodating to their foreign guests, either through the “disappearance” of certain groups, such as the Jews in Saudi, or by creating barriers to integration by restricting residency and citizenship. There are now sharper distinctions and inequalities between indigenous and expatriate populations. What remains unanswered is whether these tensions will intensify and, if so, how Gulf states will manage the divide between their huge foreign resident communities and their indigenous citizenries.

According to Foley, the Arab Gulf states have traditionally defused social and political tensions through establishing welfare states that have kept their citizenries financially comfortable. Ibn Saud, the founder of modern-day Saudi Arabia, initiated this strategy in 1915 and it continues today. Over the past year, I have often heard Qataris say, “There is no need for uprisings in Qatar like those in Egypt or Libya because we have more rights than we deserve.” Those rights are interpreted as socio-economic rights. Many Qataris appear satisfied with lesser civil and political freedoms so long as they are guaranteed a living standard that includes a salary, housing, healthcare, and education. However, such largess does not extend to the majority foreign-born population, which creates uncomfortable societal tensions. Similar difficulties exist for other states, which have not been unequivocally generous to all their residents (examples being the Shi’a in Saudi and Bahrain). Just how long this welfare state strategy will successfully last for the Arab Gulf states is an open question.

Foley ends his book by highlighting the chief question for Gulf Arabs: for almost a century they have balanced government dependence on Western security guarantees and financial ties with a citizenry that rejects many other Western policies, particularly those policies implicating the Israel/Palestine conflict. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and the view that U.S. power in the Middle East is declining, coupled with region-wide radical political change, is pushing the Arab Gulf into new territory. Foley predicts that the Gulf states will meet such changes by staying the course. Governments will continue to support a welfare state, encouraging their indigenous populations to fill the workplace while remaining dependent on foreign workers, and accepting women into prominent positions in business and politics. The states will seek to reshape their societies and economies from one based on a single modern industry—oil—to one that is diversified and based on education, science, and technology. In Foley’s eyes, the Arab Gulf is a work in progress; where it will go remains to be seen.

Courtney Erwin has an M.A. in Islamic law and J.D. in international law. From 2007 to 2010, she was chief of staff at the Cordoba Initiative, an advocacy group that promotes improved relations between Islam and the West. She now lives in Doha, Qatar, working on issues related to legal protection for education during situations of insecurity and conflict. 


Uncompromised: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of an Arab American Patriot in the CIA by Nada Prouty (Palgrave Macmillian, 2011). 282 pages.

Written by admin on December 13th, 2011

The basic facts of Prouty’s story are well known, thanks to a 60 Minutes story that aired in 2010: a Lebanese student who entered the United States at age 19, she joined the FBI and swiftly rose up through its ranks to investigate prominent terrorism cases. Seeking more action in the aftermath of 9/11, Prouty transferred to the CIA where she found herself in Iraq, clandestinely traveling about the country, identifying and debriefing Iraqi “assets.” She did this at considerable risk to her life, including a period of time when she was pregnant. But when the FBI Detroit’s office linked one of her family relatives to a Lebanese sheik purportedly associated with Hezbollah, Prouty’s world crashed down upon her. Accused of begin a Hezbollah mole, she was forced to plea guilty to criminal fraud based on a twenty year old sham marriage. Her U.S. citizenship was revoked but her deportation was “withheld,” an implicit recognition that the same terrorist groups in Lebanon she allegedly helped would have killed her for having worked for the CIA.

Uncompromised tells of the numbing unfairness of the FBI investigation and federal prosecution of Prouty and stands as a warning of how paranoia and xenophobia can twist the U.S. justice system. There was no evidence that she ever illegally passed intelligence or that she undermined U.S. national security. She was wholly vindicated by a subsequent internal CIA investigation. Public opinion and parts of official Washington rallied around her, resulting in what Prouty now calls her “redemption.”  Nine months after the 60 Minutes broadcast, her legal permanent residency status was reinstated.  Her U.S. citizenship application is pending.

Prouty stated during an interview on the Diane Rehm Show that she should have gone to trial. That probably was wishful thinking. Federal prosecutors had brow beaten her into submission through character assassination and intimidation. The New York Post took to calling her “Jihad Jane.” The lead prosecutor, Kenneth Chadwell, taunted her by declaring “in the post-9/11 environment, you could be found guilty by simply being an Arab.” He threatened to file fraud charges for each time over the past 15 years she had used her allegedly fraudulently issued U.S. passport. That would have constituted hundreds of separate criminal counts and exposed her to dozens of years in prison. Her husband was threatened with prosecution and the family’s financial savings were nearly exhausted. In the end, Proudy capitulated, agreeing “to any terms they set before me.”

Prouty’s plea agreement required her to admit that she illegally accessed an FBI computer system on Hezbollah when “she was not assigned to work Hizballal cases as part of her FBI duties.” She writes that the accusation was farcical as investigating Hezbollah was one of her principle tasks in the FBI’s anti-terrorism unit. But absent this concession, the prosecutor’s proclamations of exposing a Hezbollah mole in the FBI and CIA would have fallen flat.

Prouty also pled guilty to criminal immigration fraud based on her 1990 sham marriage. That the prosecutor achieved this conviction only after coercing her to waive the 10 year statute of limitations underscored the lack of evidence supporting any claims of espionage. Prouty admitted that when she was 19 years old she married solely to obtain legal permanent residency (eg. the “green card”) but insists that the FBI and CIA knew about it. Her claim rings true: the practice of fraudulent marriages in green card applications was so well known that the same year Prouty was married, the Oscar-winning movie Green Card came out, a romantic comedy about a sham marriage. It’s impossible to believe that both agencies’ background investigations would have failed to scrutinize her prior marriage.

Much of Uncompromised tells of Prouty’s journey from Lebanon to the United States. It was an immigrant experience warped by unique hardships. Growing up in the midst of Lebanon’s civil war was deeply unsettling for her and the Levant’s internecine battles were echoed Prouty’s home life. Her father was physically abusive and he valued only his son. She admits that the FBI became her “first real American family,” providing the stability and normality she coveted. At the Bureau, she was a workaholic and wholly devoted to protecting America from terrorist attacks. That is why, when her new-found family turned on her and she summarily was marched out of her office under armed guard, the pain she suffered was immeasurable.

The government’s case against Prouty was not evidence based but fueled by politics, personal ambitions, and anti-Arab fear-mongering. Uncompromised, along with her web site and a Facebook page, exposed such abuse and helped Prouty reclaim her reputation. This self-advocacy is understandable but it’s unfortunate that she devoted only two paragraphs on what the broader implications of her experience portends for Arab or Muslim Americans. That hardly was adequate in light of the systematic efforts to demonize Islam and Muslim Americans. Critics’ complaints that she was remiss for not trusting the U.S. justice system to prove her innocence could have been quieted by explaining that Chadwell’s abusive tactics were not uncommon, as American University law professor Angela J. Davis points out in her book Arbitrary Justice: The Power of the American Prosecutor. That power helps to explain why 95 per cent of all criminal cases in the U.S. end in guilty pleas.

It appears that the FBI’s distrust toward Arab Americans have not changed since Prouty’s redemption. Chadwell continues to rely on immigration-related errors to prosecute Muslims, dubious FBI tactics continue to fuel animosity toward Arabs and Muslims, and young Arab Americans are labeled suspected terrorists for purchasing too many cell phones at Wall-Mart. Prouty found redress because of the power of 60 Minutes; other individuals coming under the Justice Department’s scrutiny may not be so lucky.


The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda by Fawaz Gerges (Oxford University Press, 2011), 272 pages. Reviewed by John Feffer

Written by admin on November 8th, 2011

Even after the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, the routing of his organization in Afghanistan, and the assassination of the leadership of the Arabian Peninsula affiliate, the U.S. government continues to promote the threat of al-Qaeda. According to the national security apparatus, al-Qaeda still maintains the capacity to regroup in Central Asia and to launch attacks on the United States from its redoubts in Yemen and Somalia. It still inspires jihadists all over the world with its anti-imperial rhetoric and its dreams of reestablishing a global caliphate. And it threatens all civilization with its efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

Most of this threat inflation is nonsense, as Fawaz Gerges points out in his new book, The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda. He reserves special scorn for al-Qaeda’s nuclear threat. “For a group that has never displayed any technical sophistication in its attacks, this would involve a monumentally steep learning curve,” he writes. “Even were al-Qaeda to acquire the technical sophistication to build a nuclear bomb – and here we enter the sphere of science fiction – it lacks the structural capacity to develop such a weapon, let alone the necessary ingredients.”

Thanks largely to the spectacle of 9/11, al-Qaeda acquired a mythic reputation. But as Gerges details, the organization basically got lucky. Intelligence services should have averted the attacks beforehand. The Bush administration’s decision to attack Iraq gave the organization another shot in the arm. But that’s as far as its luck has gone. Al-Qaeda’s persistent attacks on fellow Muslims – as traitors to the faith – alienated the organization within the Muslim world. Its message of transnational terrorism was never particularly popular to begin with, even among the bulk of jihadists, who preferred to wage their struggles within particular countries such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

As he debunks this central myth of al-Qaeda’s power, Gerges corrects the record on a number of other points. The organization, for instance, did not exist in any institutional sense until the second half of the 1990s, even though its origin is commonly traced back to 1988. Sayyid Qutb did not provide the spiritual inspiration for al-Qaeda, for he didn’t support war against the United States. And bin Laden himself was against the shedding of Muslim blood at first, initially withholding his support for fighting against the Egyptian and Algerian governments in the 1990s.

And perhaps most importantly, al-Qaeda was not the culmination of the jihadist struggle. It was the last dying light of the movement. “When bin Laden’s group burst onto the Islamic scene in the early 1990s, the jihadist movement had largely spent itself – jihadism had failed,” Gerges writes. “Al-Qaeda’s decision to internationalize jihad was less an indicator of internal cohesion and strength of jihadism than of its inner turmoil.” In other words, not only has the reputation of al-Qaeda been over-hyped, but so has the whole tradition of violent jihadism.

The election of Barack Obama has not substantially altered the U.S. approach to al-Qaeda. Although he promised to close Guantanamo, end torture, and pull out of Iraq, and although he did retire to noxious phrase “global war on terror,” the president has largely preserved the counter-terrorism narrative. Instead of extraordinary rendition, the United States now uses drones to identify and kill suspected terrorists (along with assorted other people). And al-Qaeda remains a number one priority. Although the organization even at its height only commanded a couple thousand fighters, possessed little in the way of conventional weaponry and zero weapons of mass destruction, and controlled no significant territory, the United States remains on a war footing comparable to the Cold War when we faced a Soviet Union that matched us in terms of conventional and nuclear armaments and possessed an ideology that was more globally influential than anything bin Laden ever touted. But fear – and the need to find a compelling reason to maintain the national security status quo – has kept the United States on a war footing.

And whatever al-Qaeda was its height, which was minimal, it is now a shadow of its former self. Even its only real successor organization, al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is marginal at best. Gerges numbers its core operatives at between 50 and 300. It has no mass following. “It does not possess the material, human means, or endurance to sustain a transnational campaign, nor does it have the assets or resources to build viable alliances with Yemeni tribes and a social welfare infrastructure,” Gerges writes, and this was before the assassination of its leader, Yemeni-American Anwar al-Awlaki.

The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda is an important book, well-researched and fiercely argued. Its central message, that al-Qaeda poses only a limited, tactical threat – must be heard and absorbed by the entire U.S. national security apparatus. Until then, we will continue to fight against monsters that are largely of our own creation.


John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.