Bin Laden is losing the big battle

February 12, 2006|By FAWAZ A. GERGES

Osama bin Laden and his militant Islamist cohorts are waging an ideological war for Muslim hearts and minds, one they consider as important as their military campaign and one they may be losing.

Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, seek desperately to convince Muslims, particularly radical Islamists, that al-Qaida is winning its war against America. Such conviction, they reason, would incite their sympathizers to attack U.S. interests worldwide. "War in Iraq is raging with no let-up," bin Laden declared on the latest audio tape, "and operations in Afghanistan are escalating in our favor."

The tape, which surfaced last month after bin Laden's absence for more than a year, addresses the American people, both threatening them with fresh attacks and offering hudna, or long-term truce, if the United States withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan. Bin Laden knows that Americans won't buy his truce offer and are not convinced by his reasoning for targeting their country.

In reality, the tape was for Muslim ears: Bin Laden's proposition is meant to establish him in the eyes of his putative constituency as a legitimate leader, concerned with wartime diplomacy. That is, he too, like President Bush, is a wartime leader. The tape also answers Muslim critics who faulted him for violating Islam's fundamental rule of war: Americans were not thoroughly warned before the 9/11 attacks.

These subtexts are the tape's real messages. Bin Laden is a fugitive; he needs to assure his supporters who were anxious about his fate that all is well.

A U.S. airstrike in Pakistan last month that targeted Mr. al-Zawahiri reportedly killed four principal al-Qaida figures. Mr. al-Zawahiri survived, but the al-Qaida cohort is being closely tracked. Al-Qaida cannot win if its top leaders spend most of their time hiding, just trying to survive. If nothing else, the bin Laden tape says, "We are winning because we are alive."

Al-Qaida's grand failure is its inability to win the war for Muslim hearts and minds. One of the major miscalculations of bin Laden and Mr. al-Zawahiri was believing that attacking the United States would mobilize Muslims against their pro-Western rulers and against those rulers' superpower patron. The river of volunteers al-Qaida expected to flow into Afghanistan to fight the United States turned out to be a trickle.

While public surveys show many Muslims sympathize with al-Qaida's foreign policy grievances against the United States, most oppose its terrorism and are unwilling to kill or be killed on its behalf.

Al-Qaida has failed since 9/11 to reinvigorate and unify a splintered, war-torn jihadist movement and restore its credibility in the eyes of the worldwide Muslim community. Many Islamists and former jihadists, even within bin Laden's wing of the movement, viewed 9/11 as a calamity.

A senior member of the al-Qaida consultative council, Abu al-Walidal-Masri, publicly lambasted bin Laden's "catastrophic leadership" and his underestimation of American willpower. Since 9/11, more than a dozen books, memoirs and diaries by leading jihadists offered devastating critiques of what they called al-Qaida's colossal miscalculations and recklessness.

Since the late 1990s, an intense struggle has torn the jihadist tribe apart. This civil war, which has hardly been noticed, let alone critically examined, in the United States, deepened and widened after 9/11. The jihadist tribe is split between the ultra-militant wing, including al-Qaida, and a nonviolent faction that commands greater numbers and political weight.

This civil war has been overshadowed by the war in Iraq, which was a godsend to al-Qaida because it diverted attention from its zero-sum game and lent it an air of credibility. Bin Laden and Mr. al-Zawahiri have successfully tapped into the widespread Muslim opposition to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. The war in Iraq proved to be a powerful recruiting tool for al-Qaida and gave it time to regroup.

The Iraq war merely has postponed the inevitable shift of power toward activists who oppose violence in the service of politics. The indiscriminate violence of the followers of al-Qaida's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has turned Arab and Iraqi public opinion against global jihad.

There are daily reports of armed clashes between homegrown Iraqi fighters - the overwhelming majority of the insurgency - and the al-Zarqawi network. Sunni tribal leaders and clerics have reportedly promised to chase al-Zarqawi extremists out of their villages and towns. They said they have so far arrested more than 300 foreign "infiltrators" and terrorists of the al-Zarqawi network. The widening rift and bloodletting between the two camps does not bode well for the survival of al-Qaida in Iraq.

This promising development does not mean the United States is winning in Iraq, either. Al-Qaida still benefits from America's woes in the war-torn country.

The struggle against al-Qaida cannot be won on the battlefield. The most effective means to put the global jihad out of business is to complete its internal encirclement in the Muslim world. Muslims almost universally reject al-Qaida's global jihad. Although the Bush administration pays lip service to the war of ideas, it has not taken effective measures to win Muslim minds.

U.S. priorities should be extracting American troops from Iraq, earnestly promoting reconciliation and peace between Palestinians and Israelis and investing our sociopolitical and economic capital in the rule of law and democracy in Muslim lands.

Fawaz A. Gerges holds the Christian A. Johnson chair in Middle East and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College in New York and is the author of "The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global." His e-mail is fgergez@slc.edu.

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