Dismantling al-Qaida

November 23, 2003|By Fawaz A. Gerges

THE RECENT suicide car bombings in Saudi Arabia and Turkey indicate a dramatic shift in al-Qaida's tactics.

The militants who launched the car bombs clearly want to undermine the pro-Western governments in Riyadh and Ankara, but the attacks must also be viewed in broader terms. In the past year, al-Qaida and its regional affiliates have been attacking pro-Western Muslim regimes and soft targets from Tunisia to Indonesia in a shift that is justified ideologically but is driven by necessity: Al-Qaida does not appear to have the capability to mount large-scale attacks inside the United States at the moment.

Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, his second in command, have written of the need to shift the fight with the United States to "the heart of the Islamic world, which represents the true arena of the battle and the theater of the major battles in defense of Islam."

It is clear much of the terrorist activity in the past year in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Tunisia, Pakistan and Yemen has been regionally motivated and organized with less command and control from al-Qaida's senior leadership. This is a result of a gradual erosion of al-Qaida's leadership and its inability to launch spectacular operations on U.S. soil. This view is gaining ground in the counterterrorist community, but U.S. officials are wary of making such claims after failing to detect the presence of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Since Sept. 11, U.S. officials and outside analysts agree, nearly 65 percent of al-Qaida's leaders have been killed or captured. About 3,400 al-Qaida suspects have been arrested in the United States and overseas, from Tunisia to Indonesia. Important logistical networks in Spain, Italy and Germany have been dismantled.

According to U.S. intelligence, most of the operatives who helped plan Sept. 11 have been accounted for, and those who have been captured have described their roles in the attacks. Al-Qaida's financial infrastructure is being steadily dismantled worldwide.

Much of the strength and growth of the organization during the 1990s resulted from its ability to operate from a geographical base with impunity, first in Sudan and then in Afghanistan. The training camps, safe houses and caves were the critical infrastructure for al-Qaida. That base is now gone. The leadership has splintered and gone underground.

Bin Laden appears to be in hiding in the remote mountains of Pakistan and no longer in regular communication with his foot soldiers or his most senior deputy, Mr. Zawahiri. The London-based Control Risks Group said last week that al-Qaida's network has been largely dismantled and is leaderless.

Forward movement, therefore, has devolved to regional affiliates and individuals such as al-Qaida's cells in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan and Indonesia, which appear to be restricted to soft domestic targets in those countries. It is revealing that the Nov. 8 bombing in Riyadh was a compound inhabited mostly by Arab and Muslim expatriates, not exactly an "infidel" target. Similarly, most of the casualties in the bombing of two synagogues and two British institutions in Istanbul were Muslims, not Christians or Jews.

The bombings were condemned by clerics, civil society, the Arab press and public opinion throughout the Islamic world. Arabs and Muslims are becoming aware, though belatedly, that terrorism is a plague that threatens not only Americans and Europeans but also Muslims.

Besieged and under attack by local authorities, al-Qaida's local affiliates seem to be blindly plunging toward the brink, similar to what occurred in Egypt when local, isolated cells of militant Jihad and the Islamic Group attacked a Luxor temple and massacred 68 Egyptians and foreign tourists in November 1997. Neither group recovered from that attack.

In the late 1990s, bin Laden played a critical role in persuading Mr. Zawahiri to suspend his attacks in Egypt and to instead target the United States, Christians and Jews. He said internal strife alienates the Muslim constituency, whose support for al-Qaida is urgently needed, and diverts resources from its confrontation with the West. Mr. Zawahiri must be pleased that the path has returned to his deeply held convictions.

Since the fight against terrorism cannot be won on the battlefield, societies, not just governments, must take the lead in discrediting and undermining the ideologies fueling this raging fire. Both Muslims and Westerners have a vested interest in developing social mechanisms to discredit terrorists.

In the end, more inclusive, inter-faith and inter-civilizational initiatives will likely prove to be the most effective means to reach out to and mobilize the middle of Arab and Muslim public opinion against the false prophets of the bin Laden and Zawahiri variety.

Fawaz A. Gerges is a professor of Middle Eastern and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

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