By Barry Rubin
CIA chief Leon Panetta says al-Qaida is at its weakest point since before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. He’s probably right, though the amount of decline in the last three years or so has probably not been large.
Most of the damage to al-Qaida was done during the preceding administration and that’s a statement of fact not of political viewpoint. After all, depriving al-Qaida of its base in Afghanistan and Taliban ally—the most important actions damaging the group—took place a decade ago. And with a few lucky breaks, for example if passengers on that Detroit-bound plane had been less alert, al-Qaida might well have new massacres to brag about.
But the most important question is not who should get credit for weakening al-Qaida—a terrorist group, by the way, that could make Panetta’s optimistic statement look foolishly premature by a single major successful attack on any day of the week—but how one should regard that organization.
In terms of launching terrorist attacks on the territory of the United States or on U.S. installations abroad, al-Qaida certainly has been the number-one threat. The group’s decline is certainly a good thing and both administrations deserve credit for fighting that battle.
But focusing on al-Qaida, now listed as the sole enemy of the United States in what used to be called the war on terrorism but is now called something or other–leaves out two things of great importance which often seem to be missing in the Obama Administration’s policy.
First, the longer-term historical importance of al-Qaida has not been to be the revolutionary impetus in its own name but the inspiration for a great increase in revolutionary Islamist activity in many places. An increase in anti-American terrorism was a key element in this process but is only one part of the picture. Al-Qaida’s role has been particularly important in Iraq, Yemen, and to a lesser extent in North Africa.
Left out of the celebration regarding victories over the organization has also been the fact that a lot of the terrorist activity has passed to individuals or small groups in the West and Middle East that act on the basis of ideology, or sometimes of some training and encouragement, rather than as the direct arm of al-Qaida.
Consider, for example, the Fort Hood attack or failed attacks in a number of places, including one planned for Fort Dix. Individual Muslims or small affinity groups are active. One cannot, of course, achieve a victory over spontaneous decisions of Muslims to become Jihadists, perhaps after reading al-Qaida or other propaganda.
U.S. policy has not so much fought this phenomenon but rather largely pretends that it doesn’t exist. An attack like that at the El Al ticket counter in Los Angeles Airport, or killing a U.S. army recruiter in Arkansas, or attacking a Jewish community center in the Pacific Northwest is merely reinterpreted as the act of an individual deranged mind.
The second, and more important, problem with Panetta’s triumphalism is that al-Qaida never posed much of a strategic threat to the United States. Of course, it could stage bloody terror attacks but it could not take over countries.
The real threat, then, is the Iran-Syria-Hizballah-Hamas-Iraqi insurgent alliance plus movements like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and others.
Here, too, the administration has played a strategy of ignoring the problem. It seems to believe that by diplomatic engagement, or expressions of sympathy, or benign neglect, or moving away from Israel, or insisting that these movements have nothing to do with Islam, the problem can be defused.
But while revolutionary Islamism was set back—at least temporarily—in Iraq it continues to advance elsewhere. Moreover, the movement is further strengthened by the prospect of Iran as a nuclear power and by a U.S. policy that constrains Israel, accepts a Hamas regime in Gaza, does nothing to obstruct Hizballah’s power in Lebanon, is reluctant to pressure Iran, engages rather than weakens Syria, and many more steps like these.
Al-Qaida can blow up a building. But the revolutionary Islamists can blow up a country. And soon Iran will be able to blow up the entire Middle East.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (PalgraveMacmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books.