By Hasan Suroor
While it is true that the al-Qaeda’s fortunes in Iraq have taken a tumble, a big question mark remains on whether this means that it has been, finally, defeated.
The Central Intelligence Agency Director, Michael Hayden’s claim in a recent interview to the Washington Post that the al-Qaeda is facing a “near strategic defeat” after seven years of the aggressive United States-led “war” on terror has sparked an intense debate on the current state of the global jihadi movement, and whether the CIA has got it right.
Is the Islamist militancy, really, in meltdown — battered by America’s military might, on the one hand, and wracked by internal dissensions and splits, on the other? Or is Mr. Hayden’s claim simply a boast? And an attempt to shore up President George W. Bush’s “legacy” as he prepares to leave the White House?
Mr. Hayden’s remarks drew gasps of surprise on both sides of the Atlantic as they contradicted previous U.S. intelligence warnings (the most recent and famous being the National Intelligence Estimate based on inputs from various American intelligence sources) that the al-Qaeda remained a formidable threat. These warnings echoed the British assessment that the al-Qaeda was very much alive and capable of striking at will though it might have its off-days — more as part of a strategy to lull the “enemy” into complacency and give itself a breather, rather than as a sign of weakness.
Mr. Hayden was, of course, speaking in the specific context of the recent successes in Iraq where Americans have been able to turn around some of the worst terror-affected regions by following a twin strategy of deploying thousands of extra troops (part of the famous “surge” launched late last year) and winning over disillusioned Sunni supporters of the al-Qaeda. Many of them are now working with American troops to flush out their former comrades — not because they have suddenly fallen in love with Americans but because either they have fallen out with the al-Qaeda, or simply got fed up of the continuing violence.
What is often less acknowledged is the contribution of countries in the region to the al-Qaeda’s current difficulties. Saudi Arabia has cracked down in a big way and with Syria sealing its borders with Iraq, the al-Qaeda militants operating in Iraq have lost an important sanctuary.
The cumulative effect of all this has been a significant drop in al-Qaeda operations. The Islamic State of Iraq, a pro-al-Qaeda website, has been reported as admitting that al-Qaeda operations dropped by 94 per cent between 2006 and 2007. So, while it is true that the al-Qaeda’s fortunes in Iraq have taken a tumble, a big question mark remains on whether this means that it has been, finally, defeated. For, there is simply too much overlapping of affiliations of various Iraqi militant groups to make a clear distinction between the activities of the al-Qaeda and other outfits.
According to experts, the al-Qaeda’s links with other groups, in Iraq or elsewhere, are mostly indirect — and so complex that it is almost impossible to disentangle the lot. Taming one group of militants, therefore, doesn’t always amount to taming the big beast itself. They warn that given its hydra-like structure, any claims about the al-Qaeda’s imminent demise must be treated with scepticism.
The Guardian quoted a prominent Egyptian specialist on Islamist affairs, Dia Rashwan, as saying although there is no doubt that the al-Qaeda is facing a “crisis,” it is too early to write its obituary. As an “idea,” the al-Qaeda will continue to wield influence as long as the American foreign policy in West Asia remains unchanged. “If there is another administration like Bush … and new war in Iran, it will get a new lease of life,” he said.
Analysts also argue that the al-Qaeda’s “strategic defeat” in Iraq will not necessarily affect the wider, global jihadi movement because jihadism is not a monolithic entity. It comprises disparate groups with their own agendas that are united by a common hatred for the West, especially America, and a warped interpretation of Islam. Take, for example, Britain’s Hizb ut-Tahrir. It aims to establish Islamic caliphate worldwide and is engaged in a fanatical campaign to brainwash young Muslims but — unlike the al-Qaeda — it does not preach violence (or so it claims), though it is likely to look the other way if others are willing to use violence to achieve the same goal. Then there are those who are opposed to terror attacks on the host country while propagating violent jihad abroad. They believe that Muslims living in non-Muslim countries should not turn on their hosts and have condemned the July 7 London bombings by British-born extremists as an act of betrayal of British hospitality. This, again, is at odds with the al-Qaeda’s ideology, according to which all non-believers are legitimate targets.
So, it is a fallacy to see every extremist group as an extension of the al-Qaeda. Many have no direct links with it even though they may be inspired by its ideology. The idea, therefore, that the collapse of the al-Qaeda in Iraq will bring down the jihadi campaign elsewhere is a bit too optimistic.
The good news, however, is that political Islam itself — the source of al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups — is under pressure and there is growing dissension within Islamist ranks generally. Commenting on the Hayden controversy, The Economist (June 7) noted that irrespective of the accuracy of CIA’s claims, there were signs of “what looks like a growing schism within jihadism.” It referred to two articles by “independent researchers” — one in the New Yorker magazine by Lawrence Wright, author of a book on al-Qaeda; and the other in the New Republic by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank who have written extensively on former jihadists. All three — it said — concluded that radical Islam was facing an internal “rebellion” with many of the former Islamists joining mainstream Muslim leaders in “a powerful coalition countering [the] al-Qaeda’s ideology.”
The most high-profile of these ex-Islamists is Sayed Imam al-Shareef, an associate-turned-bitter-foe of Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man Ayman al-Zawahiri, now languishing in an Egyptian jail. He has questioned some of the fundamental aspects of the al-Qaeda’s ideology such as its claim that Islam allows targeting of all infidels and apostate Muslims.
The journal said it was not clear how much of al-Shareef’s attack on the al-Qaeda was motivated by his personal quarrel with al-Zawahiri and the pressure on him to “repudiate” his former allies but his word carried weight as he was a respected scholar in his own right and commanded a significant following. Indeed, his criticism evoked a massive response on Islamist websites with people asking the al-Qaeda to explain why it was killing innocent Muslims in the name of Islam.
A similar debate is going on in Britain with several previously committed extremists coming out in the open and repudiating their old comrades. Ed Husain, a former activist of Hizb ut-Tahrir, has written a best-selling book The Islamist, questioning the Hizb’s interpretation of Islam and describing his own “journey” from moderate Islam to “political Islam” and back.
Mr. Husain, a British-born Bangladeshi, has described the book as a “protest against political Islam.” Since its publication last year, it has become the most discussed analysis of Islamist mindset. It is not so much what Mr. Husain says that is significant (it is all good old common sense) but the fact that he realised the “error” of his ways and felt sufficiently strongly about the issue to go public. And he is not the only one: there are enough of them to pass for a Brotherhood of ex-extremists.
Indeed, a group of reformed Islamists, including Mr. Husain, has come together and launched a much-hyped think-tank, the Quilliam Foundation, with the aim of exposing and challenging the “weaknesses, inconsistencies and failings of Islamist thought and actions.” It also promises to offer an alternative to the “rigidity of Islamism and extreme Wahhabism.” The Foundation (named after William Henry Abdullah Quilliam, a 19th century English convert to Islam, who built Britain’s first mosque in Liverpool) proudly says on its website that it is “spearheaded by high-profile former Islamists.” Its aims include encouraging Islamists to join mainstream Islam; and propagating full integration of Muslims into western society.
Although some have branded it a creation of intelligence agencies, it is, at least, making the right noises. Which itself is important in the current climate. Extremist circles apart, there is a distinct change in the Muslim mood generally in most countries as reflected in the recent developments in India like the anti-extremism Muslim rally in Delhi and the Deoband clerics’ fatwa against terrorists. Much of it might be prompted by sheer pragmatism as the anti-Muslim backlash starts to bite the community but, to use the old cliché, better late than never,
But whether this change will go far enough to rattle the jihadis will depend on how the American foreign policy in the Muslim world unfolds in coming months. One more Iraq-like adventure (in Iran for instance) and Mr. Hayden can forget about defeating the al-Qaeda.
Source: The Hindu