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The Search for Al Qaeda

The Search for Al Qaeda

A visit to most bookshops during the past few years may well have convinced you that we now have all the books that anyone might want to read on Al Qaeda. Well, apparently not.

Many of the books on the subject turn out to be little more than a re-collaging of previous oeuvres dealing with the terrorist group that earned an eternal reputation for infamy by organizing the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. There are, however, some exceptions. Bruce Riedel’s slim book (only 180 pages) is one. In a fast-paced narrative, it offers the reader much of what he might want to learn about Al Qaeda.

Riedel, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former adviser on the Middle East to three past presidents, draws on his personal experience and access to the most confidential sources to offer a narrative rich in facts.

However, it is the analytical part of the book that would be of special interest both because Riedel tries to be innovative in making policy recommendations and, more importantly perhaps, because his views have found a great echo in the new administration of President Barack Obama.

Riedel argues that former President George W Bush was wrong to speak of “the war on terror” rather than a war against Al Qaeda. Riedel also criticizes Bush for ordering the invasion of Iraq rather than focusing on Afghanistan and Pakistan where al Qaeda was, and it seems, remains rooted.

Three policy recommendations stand out in Riedel’s book.

The first is that the United States should help counter Al Qaeda’s discourse by encouraging, and whenever possible supporting, forces within Islam that offer a different perspective of their faith and its place in the world. Riedel cites the condemnation of Al Qaeda and its methods by several fundamentalist Sunni theologians in Egypt and elsewhere as examples. In other words, the US has many potential allies within Islam, who could offer support in a common struggle against extremism.

The second recommendation is that the US should devote greater energy to the Palestinian issue. Riedel endorses President Bush’s “two-state” formula as the basis of US policy in the Middle East but criticizes the previous administration for having done little to achieve that goal.

The third policy recommendation is the development of a strategy for the whole of southern Asia where Riedel believes “the future of Jihad” lies. He wants special attention to Pakistan where, he claims, successive US presidents have failed because they backed military dictators who could not mobilize popular support for a genuine fight against extremism.

With the Obama administration apparently adopting Riedel’s analysis, we should soon know whether these recommendations would produce the desired effects.

As always, however, a note of caution may be in order.

For example, some of the Islamist “moderates” who are supposed to help the US against Al Qaeda are as anti-American as Osama bin Laden. Their differences with the leader of the Al Qaeda are tactical rather than strategic. Would it make sense to sacrifice the few democratic forces that exist in the Muslim world to an alliance with “moderate” fundamentalists, such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian sheikh operating from Qatar?

As for the “two-state” formula on Palestine, it is clear that neither Israel nor the Palestinians have been interested, at least until now. There is no way the US could impose such a solution on unwilling partners. Even then, the creation of a Palestinian state is unlikely to transform Al Qaeda wolves into lambs. Palestine would become just another Arab states and, as such, another target for Al Qaeda. It is naïve to think that Al Qaeda is fighting for a Palestinian state. Al Qaeda, as Riedel himself shows earlier in his book, is seeking world conquest.

Finally, a strong case could be argued against further American involvement in Afghanistan where US and allied forces have been fighting a variety of radical groups few of which have ever had a specifically anti-American agenda. In Afghanistan, the US has crushed forces that were fighting Russia, China, India, Uzbekistan, The Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Algeria, Libya, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Al those countries benefited from the American sacrifice of blood and treasure but did nothing to help the US in Afghanistan.

Riedel’s book would have benefited from more careful editing and fact checking. Many of the Arabic terms used, are wrongly transliterated or translated. The writer gets the names of the presidents of Afghanistan and Iraq wrong. The book repeats legends fabricated by bin Laden and Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader, about their non-existent participation in Afghanistan’s war of liberation against the Soviet Union.

Written before the Pakistani general election of last year, the book claims that Bush has arranged the whole exercise to perpetuate the status quo. The election, however, produced a resounding victory for President Pervez Musharraf’s political enemies and led to his forced resignation.

Since the book was written before the recent successes in Iraq, Riedel’s view of that newly liberated nation remains somber throughout. Riedel says that Abu-Masub al-Zarqawi, the leader of the Al Qaeda in Iraq at the time, has been “spectacularly successful.” However, Zarqawi died soon after Riedel’s manuscript went to the press and, today, most observers agree that Al Qaeda has been spectacularly defeated in Iraq.

Equally problematic is Riedel’s claim that Al Qaeda’s leadership remains virtually intact. However, a review of the Al Qaeda leadership as established by experts and intelligence services in 2003, reveals a different picture. Of the 25 men on the leadership list, only three are beloved to be still alive and operational. All others are either dead or under lock and key in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Riedel asserts that bin Laden wanted the US to invade Afghanistan, and become bogged down there, bleeding for years. This is a strange assertion. To start with, it is not at all certain that the US would have invaded had Bush not been the president. After all, Al Qaeda had already attacked the World Trade Center in New York in 1993, killing seven people. President Bill Clinton had responded by firing a few missiles at an empty animal shed in Afghanistan. Had Al Gore been president in 2001 he might have sent Bill Richardson on yet another of those rather pathetic diplomatic missions to Kabul that Riedel recalls from the old Clinton days.

Riedel makes a number of brief but tantalizing assertions that leaves the reader thirsting for more. For example, we are told that since 9/11 hundreds of similar conspiracies have been found and nipped in the bud. However, no detail is offered. We are also told that there are more than 5000 Algerian terrorists in France. This is a huge number and most readers would have been interested in more information regarding its source. Riedel says that an Al Qaeda attack on Tel Aviv, using weapons of mass destruction, could claim 125,000 lives. Again, one would lie to know what kind of WMD and, more importantly, how that figure was determined.

Some of Riedel’s assertions are equally intriguing. For example, he excludes even a tactical alliance between Hamas, the Palestinian radical group, with Al Qaeda. However, he does not say why. In fact, since both Hamas and Al Qaeda sprung from the Muslim Brotherhood, there is every chance that they might, at some point, pool their resources together against a common enemy.

The chief merit of Riedel’s essay is that it promotes, and sometimes provokes, fresh thinking and polemics. Even in that sense alone, it is a valuable contribution to the public debate.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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