Is Bin Laden losing?

Al Qaeda has not experienced a sudden slump in support. It has been in decline for many years
July 25, 2008

In May, two articles by western experts on al Qaeda suggested that Bin Laden's terrorist organisation might be in sharp decline. Both were meticulously researched and received wide attention. Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, research fellows at New York University, and Lawrence Wright of the New Yorker are all authoritative observers of Islamic militancy. The article by the former pair, in the New Republic, focused on disillusion among ex-militants with the strategy adopted over the last ten years by the al Qaeda leadership of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. This discontent, they said, was the result partly of the strategy's failure to achieve its aims and partly the appalling effects of the violence it has entailed, and they linked it to a broader decline in the popularity of al Qaeda and its ideology across both the Islamic world and immigrant communities in the west.

Wright's article focused more closely on Egypt, which continues to provide a disproportionate number of the key figures of the al Qaeda leadership. Wright told the back story to the recent rejection of violent jihad by one of al Qaeda's original strategists, the imprisoned Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, aka Dr al-Fadl. Al-Fadl, from his cell, has written a book explaining why his previous works were misguided.

All three writers are right to speak of the divisions within al Qaeda and a decline in its popularity. But some of the excitement about the two articles has been based on the false idea that al Qaeda has suddenly split or that there has been a recent slump in its appeal. In fact, the various elements of the al Qaeda phenomenon—the hardcore leadership, a network of networks, the autonomous "home-grown" actors and the ideology—have never been very unified. Al Qaeda's bid to raise the "Islamic masses" in a general revolt against what they see as apostate powers in the middle east and the west has been losing momentum for many years.

This lack of unity has been evident since the foundation of al Qaeda in the late 1980s. Ending this disunity was in fact one of the main aims of the founders. Afghan veterans of the period enjoy relating the various spats that divided the "Arabs," and al-Fadl was a bitter enemy of al-Zawahiri even 30 years ago. Things failed to get much better in the 1990s. Groups from Algeria to Indonesia rejected Bin Laden's offers of logistical aid in return for allegiance, focusing instead on local struggles. In 1999 in Afghanistan, I obtained a fatwa that Bin Laden himself had got from Abu Qatada, a radical scholar then based in London (and who has recently been released from custody in Britain), to defend himself against a rival's unlikely criticism that he was insufficiently radical. And then there was 9/11, which was deeply controversial, even among the dozen or so leaders of al Qaeda. In the aftermath, the ranks closed behind Bin Laden, but not for long. The brutal Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq had a rancorous and competitive relationship with the older and better-known Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. The Taliban have also maintained their distance from the "Arabs," despite some overlap.

What is striking in al-Fadl's doctrinal rethinking is not so much the technicalities of how to behave as a guest in an "enemy nation," but rather the simple realism. The fight in Afghanistan should be continued, he argues, while the one in Iraq should be dropped, because only the former will succeed. But a realist strand in radical thinking has been growing for some time too. In his most recent work, Terreur et Martyr, the French scholar Gilles Kepel describes how the Spanish/Syrian thinker and jihadi activist known as Abu Musab al-Suri (now in American custody) started questioning al-Zawahiri's strategy long ago, arguing that far from launching militants on the path to eventual victory, attacking the "far enemy" of the west rather than the "near enemy" of despotic, apostate local middle eastern regimes meant that he and his kind now have their backs to the wall, hunted all over the world.

Which brings us to Muslim public opinion. Bergen/Cruickshank and Wright are almost certainly right that there has been a recent further drop in support for the core al Qaeda leadership among even militant Muslims. Yet the past extent of that support has often been exaggerated. I have travelled frequently through the middle east and southwest Asia in the last five years, and it is clear to me that most people, despite deep-rooted anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism and antisemitism—and a profound distrust of corrupt local governments—have not heeded the al Qaeda call to arms. As Bergen and Cruickshank stress, the reason for this is simple: the package offered by militants is not attractive. Living under sharia is at best the least bad alternative, as it was for the Afghans who welcomed the Taliban in the early 1990s after years of war and anarchy. And there is a clear correlation between exposure to the reality of violence and a drop in support for violence. The most fiery militants I have interviewed have usually been those furthest from the bomb blasts: in Amman (at least until it too was bombed), not Baghdad; in Manchester, not Peshawar. Confronted with the reality of horrific violence and economic stagnation, most people let fall the quasi-millenarian jihadist images and return to a more prosaic reality, as al-Fadl appears to have done. This is a strategic failure for Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, who have always recognised that to move beyond mere survival, they need to mobilise large populations. Spectacular violence was their chosen means of doing so, and it does not appear to have worked.