Dec 12, 2010

Bin Laden’s Lonely Crusade

Bin Laden's Lonely Crusade | Politics | Vanity Fair A decade after White House aide Richard Clarke’s famous memo warning against al-Qaeda, it’s time for a reality check: the 9/11 attacks did not achieve what Osama bin Laden had hoped, and the list of his enemies is growing. Keeping the threat in perspective is the surest way to prevail. By Peter Bergen Exactly 10 years ago this month, just days after the inauguration of George W. Bush as president, Richard Clarke, the top counterterrorism aide in the White House, wrote a now famous memo warning the administration of the challenge posed by al-Qaeda. He “urgently” requested a high-level review of American efforts to deal with Osama bin Laden and his terrorist organization. The warning was not heeded—and, even if it had been, there is no way of knowing whether the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented. The attacks came, and in their aftermath, encouraged by political leaders and national-security experts, a particular view of terrorism and of al-Qaeda took hold, and remains entrenched to this day. The idea, simply put, is that Islamist terrorism, spearheaded by al-Qaeda, poses an “existential” threat to America and the West. That sentiment was repeatedly voiced by Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair, and many others. We continue to hear it today. That reaction was perhaps understandable, but it was always wrong. Few terrorist actions pose an existential threat, though the fear engendered by terrorism—particularly if that fear is stoked, manipulated, and institutionalized—may well accomplish what attacks themselves cannot. But whatever harm the terminology may have done, the language of existential threat also blinds us to what has long been a basic truth: it is not the West that faces an existential threat, but al-Qaeda. About two months after 9/11, bin Laden boasted to a group of supporters, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.” The weak horse turned out to be bin Laden’s own. During the past decade, misguided actions taken in the name of the War on Terror—notably the invasion of Iraq, the bungled war in Afghanistan, and the heavy-handed approach to the treatment of prisoners—have bought bin Laden and his allies some time. These actions have won a certain amount of sympathy among Muslims for the Islamist cause. But they have not changed the underlying reality: al-Qaeda and groups that share its ideology are on the wrong side of history. “From Misfortune to Disaster” The first thing to recognize is that, despite the carnage and the shock, the 9/11 attacks represented a strategic blunder by al-Qaeda. When news of the first plane’s hitting the World Trade Center reached them, bin Laden’s followers exploded with joy. But shrewder members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan realized that the attacks might not be the stunning victory that bin Laden, and many in the West, took them to be. Vahid Mojdeh, a Taliban foreign-ministry official, immediately understood that the game was up: “As soon as I heard the news,” he recalled, “I realized that the Taliban were going to be terminated.” Abu al-Walid al-Masri, an Egyptian who was an early bin Laden associate, explained that, in the years before 9/11, bin Laden had come increasingly to the view that America was weak: “As evidence he referred to what happened to the United States in Beirut when the bombing of the Marines headquarters led them to flee from Lebanon.” Bin Laden also cited the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia, following the “Black Hawk Down” incident, and the pullout from Vietnam in the 1970s. When I traveled with Peter Arnett to meet with bin Laden in Afghanistan, in 1997, he stated as if it were a self-evident fact that “the U.S. still thinks and brags that it still has this kind of power even after all these successive defeats.” Bin Laden had come to the delusional conclusion that the United States was as weak as the Soviet Union had once been. Several of those in al-Qaeda’s inner circle had argued that large-scale attacks on American targets would be unwise. Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian army officer, and Abu Hafs, a Mauritanian religious adviser, opposed the attacks either because they feared the American response or because they were worried that such operations would alienate the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, whose sanctuary al-Qaeda enjoyed. Noman Benotman, a leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, traveled from London in the summer of 2000 to meet with bin Laden in Kandahar. He stated bluntly that attacking America would be disastrous. “But they laughed,” he recalls, “when I told them that America would attack the whole region if they launched another attack against it.” There is not a shred of evidence that, in the weeks before 9/11, al-Qaeda’s leaders anticipated or made any plans for an American invasion of Afghanistan. They prepared instead only for possible U.S. cruise-missile attacks and bombing sorties. A letter written by an al-Qaeda insider in 2002 gives a sense of just how demoralized the group was following the American overthrow of their Taliban allies: “Today we are experiencing one setback after another and have gone from misfortune to disaster.” Members of al-Qaeda were right to be dispirited: Before 9/11, the group had acted freely in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda conducted its own foreign policy independent from the Taliban, taking the form, beginning in 1998, of multiple strikes on American government, military, and civilian targets. Before 9/11, al-Qaeda was an organization of global reach. The 9/11 attack itself played out around the world, with planning meetings in Malaysia, operatives taking flight lessons in the United States, coordination by plot leaders based in Hamburg, and money transfers from Dubai—activities overseen by al-Qaeda’s senior command from secure bases in Afghanistan. Almost all of this infrastructure was smashed after 9/11. One of bin Laden’s key goals is to bring about regime change in the Middle East and to replace the House of Saud and the Mubarak family of Egypt with Taliban-style rule. He believes that the way to accomplish this is to attack the “far enemy” (the United States and its Western allies), then watch as America recoils and the U.S.-backed Muslim regimes regarded as the “near enemy” collapse. The attacks on Washington and New York resulted in the direct opposite of his hopes. After 9/11, American troops occupied two Muslim countries and established new bases in several others. Relations between the United States and the authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes became stronger than ever, based on a shared goal of defeating violent Islamists. After 9/11, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s number two, acknowledged in a polemical political memoir that the most important strategic goal of al-Qaeda was to seize control of a state somewhere in the Muslim world, explaining that “without achieving this goal our actions will mean nothing.” But after 9/11, al-Qaeda lost its safe base in Afghanistan, and its attempt in Iraq to set up a sympathetic Sunni-dominated state dramatically backfired. Iraq today may be dysfunctional, but it is a country where the Sunnis are marginalized. The country’s ties with the Shiite government of Iran are close. A decade after 9/11, by Zawahiri’s own standard, al-Qaeda has achieved “nothing.” Seeds of Their Own Destruction Is al-Qaeda simply going to wither away? Yes, with a little help, though not in the short term. History shows that small, violent groups can sustain their bloody work for years on end with virtually no public support. However, embedded in the DNA of groups such as al-Qaeda are the seeds of their own destruction. To begin with, al-Qaeda and allied groups have launched terrorist campaigns from Iraq to Indonesia that have killed thousands of Muslim civilians. For groups that claim to be defending Muslims, this is not an impressive achievement. It is a particular problem for al-Qaeda, with its claim to the Islamist high ground, because the Koran specifically forbids the killing of civilians and the killing of Muslims. In Saudi Arabia, al-Qaeda lost a great deal of support after a campaign of attacks in 2003 that killed mostly Saudis. Saudi society, which had once been a cheerleader for bin Laden, turned against him. By 2007, only 10 percent of Saudis had a favorable view of al-Qaeda. In Pakistan, where bin Laden is presumably hiding out, his popularity is down to 18 percent, compared with 52 percent five years ago. Key Muslim clerics have formally withdrawn their endorsements. At the same time, al-Qaeda and its allies—in contrast, for instance, to Hezbollah—do not offer a positive vision of the future. We know what bin Laden is against. What is he for? Ordinary Muslims ask themselves this same question. There are no al-Qaeda social-welfare services or schools. An al-Qaeda hospital is a sinister oxymoron. If you were to ask bin Laden, he would say that al-Qaeda seeks the restoration of “the caliphate.” By this he does not mean the restoration of something like the last caliphate—the Ottoman Empire, a relatively pluralistic polity—but rather the imposition of Taliban-style theocracies in a broad belt from Africa to Asia. Many Muslims may admire bin Laden because he “stood up” to the West, but that does not mean they want to live in his grim Islamist utopia. They do not. Finally, the jihadist militants are incapable of turning themselves into a genuine mass political movement because their ideology prevents them from making the kind of real-world compromises that would allow them to engage in normal politics. Indeed, rather than cut deals with new friends, bin Laden has kept adding to his list of enemies, including any Muslim who doesn’t precisely share his ultra-fundamentalist worldview. The enemies list grows and grows. Al-Qaeda has said it is opposed to all Middle Eastern regimes; the Shia; most Western countries; Jews and Christians; the governments of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Russia; most news organizations; most humanitarian organizations; and the United Nations. This is no way to increase market share. The Wisdom of Hippocrates How should all this inform our strategy for dealing with al-Qaeda? First, some of the lessons of Cold War “containment” of the Soviet Union are relevant. The United States and its allies used a variety of means, generally short of frontal warfare, to put limits on the expansion of Communist regimes until the internal weaknesses of those regimes brought them down. Al-Qaeda and allied groups will eventually implode. That said, the lessons of the Cold War can take us only so far with al-Qaeda, which has no fixed “return address.” Moreover, its followers believe they are part of a divine struggle, and thus they are not deterrable in any conventional sense. Containment, when it comes to al-Qaeda, means putting continual pressure on the group’s safe havens, in particular in Pakistan, but also in Yemen, in Somalia, and anywhere else that seems poised to become a base. Doing so does not require invasion or total war. It requires only quick attacks and covert insertions that keep terrorists from becoming settled or secure. This approach is protracted and messy, and will have its ups and downs. But it will do the trick. Second, the United States and its allies must bear in mind the Hippocratic injunction to do no harm. Al-Qaeda and similar groups will, in time, collapse from irrelevance and non-support unless continually given new life by outside events. The war in Iraq was one such event. Guantánamo was another gift. Episodes such as the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy and the threatened burning of Korans by a church in Florida receive front-page treatment in the Muslim world—and are profoundly counterproductive. Raising the temperature only delays the day of reckoning; indeed, the temperature should be lowered as much as possible. This means pressing as best we can in an evenhanded way for a settlement of the conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians and between India and Pakistan—both of which inflame Muslim passions. We should also uphold American values about human rights and the rule of law. Some will loudly brand any effort to lower the temperature as “appeasement.” It is not. It is wisdom. Third, citizens in the West must come to understand—and their leaders must drive the point home—that although terrorist attacks, including attacks by al-Qaeda, will continue to happen, the real damage is done by the panic and lashing out that follows. This is the reaction that al-Qaeda craves—and it is why terrorism works. It’s easy to understand the emergence of a culture of paranoia coupled with a rhetoric of vengeance. Prudence, calmness, and patience seem almost pusillanimous by comparison. But they work. Rare is the threat that can be defeated in large measure simply by deciding that we will not unduly fear it. Terrorism is one such threat. Above all, we need to keep al-Qaeda in perspective, remembering that its assets are few, and shrinking. After 9/11, bin Laden employed the imagery of a strong horse and a weak horse, but the reality of his situation was better described by Sitting Bull. The Sioux leader, at the Little Bighorn, is said to have observed: We have won a great battle but lost a great war.