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.