What sort of threat is Al-Qaeda today? Many commentators (especially in the United States) regard it as a cosmic menace, lurking everywhere, plotting to kill civilians en masse. Informed by this perception, a counter-terrorism bureaucracy has proliferated in the United States - 200 plus counter-terrorist organizations established since 9/11. In addition, the US has spent between one and three trillion dollars on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars justified in part as wars against 'terror' generally and Al-Qaeda specifically. Judging then by the resources allocated to fighting it, one might well conclude it is a most serious threat.
While terrorism is a real hazard, Fawaz A. Gerges shows that the perception of Al Qaeda as an existential threat is vastly overblown. Al Qaeda is a busted flush. The organisation has been degraded by a combination of ideological bankruptcy and external pressure. Military and police action has contributed to this but the organisation's fundamental weaknesses were and are political and ideological. Al-Qaeda's ambition to be the vanguard of a mass Muslim uprising, leading a transnational Jihad against the West, has failed.
But such a vision never had much credibility in the first place. Al-Qaeda was born out the defeat of armed Jihad in places like Algeria and Egypt in the 1990s, and its failure to make any headway elsewhere, like Indonesia. Its foundation in the badlands of Afghanistan in the 1990s was a marriage of convenience between two fugitives, the Egyptian Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Saudi Osama Bin Laden, both of whose respective ambitions to topple the secular Egyptian and theocratic Saudi regimes had failed. Their joining forces in the 1990s was a desperate attempt to revive their flagging struggles. It was Bin Laden's vision of a war against America, Saudi Arabia's ally, (as opposed to Zawahiri's war against local, `apostate' regimes) that prevailed. But Bin Laden's (seeming) success in 9/11 did not provide him with the vindication he sought. 9/11 (widely condemned in much of the Islamic world) failed to galvanise the Muslim masses against the West. America's military response shattered Al-Qaeda Central and the Muslim masses did not rally to save it.
However, the United States' invasion of Iraq was a boon for Bin Laden. For a while, it generated a surge of pan-Islamic outrage against the United States, something 9/11 never achieved - and a provided Al-Qaeda's golden opportunity. It soon squandered it. Al-Qaeda failed to establish itself in Iraq for the same reasons that armed jihad failed in Egypt and Algeria: its indiscriminate violence against fellow believers, its insensitivity to local varieties and understandings of Islam, its failure to appreciate the strength of local nationalisms.
The book makes very clear that, down the years, Al-Qaeda's military weaknesses have been on account of its political weaknesses. These were manifest before 9/11 (even the relationship between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda before 9/11 was nowhere near as cosy as widely assumed) and they are especially pronounced now. It is true that the movement has a presence in places like Yemen, and several plots have been allegedly traced to there. But rather than see this as a revival of a transnational Jihad, its off-shoots should be understood as `franchise' elements, inspired by the tenets of Bin Laden's example and ideology, but not centrally directed by his successors. The fragmented nature of the organisation makes such central coordination all but impossible. Further, it does not follow that the local presence of Al-Qaeda inspired elements in trouble spots like Somalia and Yemen means that the prospects of a revived global Jihad are going to improve anytime soon. The various strands are too disparate to coalesce into any such entity.
This is not to say that Gerges is complacent. He does not say that terrorism is no longer a threat. The global, transnational jihad terrorist model has exhausted itself but there is a noticeable ideological disaffection among young Muslims resident in the West. This provides tinder for the replication of the `franchise' model of terrorism closer to home, and indeed the example of the failed Christmas Day airliner bombing in 2009 seems to be the shape of terrorism to come in the near to intermediate future. For Gerges the roots of this disaffection are in the West's on-going 'War on Terror' in Afghanistan-Pakistan and the `occupation' of Muslim lands. Although I differ from him regarding this, I accept his point that terrorism needs to be seen as a criminal and local threat, not an ideological, transnational menance. The scale of threat needs to be properly appraised. There are after all many possible threats and harms and proposed remedies need to be assessed in terms of costs and benefits. A dollar spent on fighting the threat of terrorism is a dollar that is not spent to fight another threat, like pandemic flu. With regards to terrorism, cost-benefit thinking has gone out of the window. Instead we have a never-ending demand on the part of an ever-inflating terrorism industry of a greater and greater share of resources, with no sense of competing priorities.
Overall, this book cuts Al-Qaeda down to the size. For this reason, many security experts will in all likelihood not bother to read this book, for many of them may have to look for work elsewhere if they accepted its analysis. Nonetheless, it deserves the widest readership and the broadest discussion.
I bought this book while I was in Jordon and have found it illuminating, although at times rather heavy weather. It is well researched and has one basic message, Al-Qaeda is not all its cracked up to be. Once you have absorbed that fact I found the book a bit boring. I was hoping for more details on the internal working of Al-Qaeda, particularly on the run up to Sept 11th.. I struggled a bit with all the Middle Eastern names, a problem not just associated with this book. It might have been helpful to have a Whose Who and pictures somewhere in the book so readers can understand the significance of each person. If you are au-fait with the Middle East and dont get confused between people it will be a lot easier to follow. Students may find this book useful and I am certainly more relaxed about Al-Qaeda than I used to be.
its a book people should read and have to learn about the world outside our own windows, so glad he took the time to write it and open my eyes, im english and only hear the BBC reporting, so when this pops up, i get my mind opened