Al-Qaeda laid to rest? Not just yet By Michael Scheuer
Whether said about the aging process or the implacable approach of writing
deadlines, the old saw about "time flying" is certainly true. But seldom has it
been truer than in the past three weeks.
At dawn on May 29, the 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate that said
al-Qaeda was a major and gradually increasing threat to the United State was
still valid; by late that afternoon, the secretary of the US Department of
Homeland Security (DHS) had announced that the Lebanese Hezbollah was now the "
'A' team of terrorism" and that it made "al-Qaeda look like a minor league
Then, on May 30, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director
Michael Hayden said that al-Qaeda was strategically defeated in several
important venues; that it was "facing setbacks globally", and that, overall,
the US was doing "pretty well" against its Islamist nemesis. The next morning,
the DHS secretary one-upped Hayden by issuing a "don't-worry-be-happy
statement" that greatly downplayed the chances of al-Qaeda acquiring and using
a nuclear device.
To make things even cheerier, all of these glad tidings rode in on the back of
other claims that al-Qaeda's demise was, if not imminent, at least on the
horizon. Three US terrorism experts published two articles in the last days of
May which asserted that that Osama bin Laden's group is increasingly isolated
in the Islamic world and alienated from Muslims because of criticisms and
theological challenges - some of book-length - authored by repentant Islamic
At least one former "al Qaeda mastermind" - Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, aka Dr Fadl
- penned a thoroughly damning anti-al-Qaeda tract, but happened to be locked
away in an Egyptian prison at the time of publication and so was unavailable to
talk to Western journalists. Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank ask why former
al-Qaeda allies have turned against al-Qaeda's leaders:
To a large
extent it is because al-Qaeda and its affiliates have increasingly adopted the
doctrine of Takfir, by which they claim the right to decide who is a "true"
Muslim. Al-Qaeda's critics know what results from this Takfiri view: first, the
radicals deem some Muslims apostates; after that, the radicals start killing
them. This fatal progression happened in both Algeria and Egypt in the 1990s.
Its is now taking place even more dramatically in Iraq, where al-Qaeda's
suicide bombers have killed more than 10,000 Iraqis, most of them targeted
simply for being Shi'ite. Recently, al-Qaeda in Iraq has turned its fire on
Sunnis who oppose its dictates, a fact not lost on the Islamic world's Sunni
Lawrence Wright in the New Yorker adds:
August , al-Qaeda will mark its 20th anniversary. That is a long life for
a terrorist group. Most terror organizations disappear with the death of their
charismatic leader, and it would be hard to imagine al-Qaeda remaining a
coherent entity without bin Laden. The Red Army Faction went out of business
when the Berlin Wall came down and it lost its sanctuary in East Germany. The
Irish Republican Army, unusually, endured for nearly a century until economic
conditions in Ireland significantly improved, and the leaders were pressured by
their own members to reach a political accommodation. When one looks for
hopeful parallels for the end of al-Qaeda, it is discouraging to realize that
its leadership is intact, its sanctuaries are unthreatened, and the social
conditions that gave rise to the movement are largely unchanged. On the other
hand, al-Qaeda has nothing to show for its efforts except blood and grief. The
organization was constructed from rotten intellectual bits and pieces - false
readings of religion and history - cleverly and deviously fitted together to
give the appearance of reason. Even if [Dr] Fadl's rhetoric [recanting earlier
support for al-Qaeda] strikes some readers as questionable, al-Qaeda's
sophistry is rudely displayed for everyone to see. Although it likely will
continue as a terrorist group, who could still take it seriously as a
Amazing. In the 21 days since this author last
wrote, bin Laden and al-Qaeda have been transformed from Salafists and Wahhabis
to nihilistic, kill-'em-all Takfiris; have been demoted from veteran and
talented insurgents to the level of the whack-jobs who manned the Red Army
Faction; and have been defeated in a manner the world has not seen since
"Mission Accomplished in Iraq" was declared in 2003.
How to explain this stunning turnaround? Well, the astounding claims made by
senior US government officials that al-Qaeda is reeling from American blows
seem easy enough to explain. After the US government was roundly damned for not
destroying al-Qaeda before attacking Iraq, the spate of late-May pronouncements
by top US officials - if one is permitted to be cynical - may be intended to
assure Americans that al-Qaeda is beaten if in the next few months it becomes
necessary for US forces to attack Iran.
The contention that there is a fierce debate occurring between and among
al-Qaeda leaders and theoreticians and other Islamists is true enough, but
hardly new. Passionate, learned and personally stinging inter-group and even
intra-al-Qaeda debate is standard operating procedure among Islamists. What is
unusual in the current round of argument is that: (a) It is more public than
usual and (b) many heretofore credible Western analysts are indulging in
wishful thinking and giving great credence to the words of al-Qaeda critics,
even though the two sources they most often and most fully cite are of rather
One is a Saudi, Shaykh Salman al-Awdah, who wrote a public letter condemning
bin Laden for taking the lives of many Muslims in al-Qaeda's attacks . The
other is an Egyptian, the above-mentioned and legendary jihadi theorist Fadl,
who, from an Egyptian prison, is publishing - through the Egyptian security
service's good offices - 180-degree retractions of pro-jihad works he once
claimed were sanctioned by God.
Awdah was once a firebrand Islamist who preached jihad, mentored bin Laden, and
spent five years in prison for opposing the US military presence on the Arabian
Peninsula and suggesting the al-Saud family is un-Islamic. Today, Awdah is a
member in good standing of the official Saudi religious establishment. He has
his own website (islamtoday.net), hosts a television program and he is allowed
to travel overseas to condemn violence conducted in the name of religion.
Fadl, while still in jail, has access to a fax machine and is getting special
treatment. "His son says he has a private room with a bath and a small
kitchen," complete with a refrigerator, newspaper delivery and a television
set. Interestingly, Fadl lived freely in Yemen from 1994 until 2001, but it was
only after he found himself in prison in Egypt, at some point after September
11, 2001, that he was seized by genuine remorse for his older jihadi writings
and felt motivated by God to recant his earlier radical beliefs.
There is no doubt that the statements and arguments of Awdah and Fadl are
splashed around all media venues and carry some weight with Islamists; they
have and will provoke debate, both polite and bitter in nature. But their words
would carry much more weight among Islamists and average Muslims - and would
pose a much greater threat to the future of al-Qaeda and the Islamist movement
- if it was not so starkly clear that both men are fully under the
not-always-gentle thumb of the Saudi and Egyptian regimes, and that each has
personally benefited from his willingness to recant former positions by
publishing anti-Islamist statements and treatises both regimes want published
and widely distributed.
The statements by Awdah and Fadl certainly will not help al-Qaeda; indeed,
al-Qaeda heavyweights Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Yahya-al-Libi have both
publicly said that they could deepen the defeatism which is so deeply engrained
among Arabs, and which al-Qaeda has been trying to overcome since it was
founded in 1988 . Still, the statements are unlikely to rapidly kill off
support for bin Laden and his group in an Islamic world where most Muslims
recognize that nine times out of 10, such drastic recantations from previously
held positions are prompted by monetary payoffs, threats to family and friends,
or severe physical abuse.
More importantly, the theological challenges launched by Awdah, Fadl and others
change nothing in regard to the fundamental motivation of al-Qaeda and its
allies - the impact of US and Western policies in the Muslim world; the
presence of US and Western military forces in the Arab region; and US and
Western support for tyrannical Arab regimes. As long as this status quo lasts,
al-Qaeda and its allies will continue fighting and their efforts will continue
to win broad and probably increasing public support, or at least acquiescence.
In the face of this reality, individuals like Awdah and Fadl offer Muslims
nothing but defeatism, a willingness to see the rule of Arab police states
prolonged indefinitely and supine acceptance of what is viewed by much of the
Muslim world as a mortally anti-Islamic "Crusader-Zionist" hegemony.
The always vituperative British journalist and author Robert Fisk described
this reality neatly in the June 1 issue of The Independent of London. Although
putting too much emphasis - as he often does - on the theme of Western
oppression of Muslims, Fisk otherwise presents a valid and commonsense view of
why al-Qaeda is not on the ropes and will not be any time soon. "So al-Qaeda is
'almost defeated', is it?", Fisk began:
Major gains against al-Qaeda.
Essentially defeated. On balance, we are doing pretty well," the CIA's boss,
Michael Hayden, tells the Washington Post. "Near strategic defeat for al-Qaeda
in Iraq. Near strategic defeat for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Significant
setbacks for al-Qaeda globally - and here I'm going to use the word
ideologically - as a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of
Islam." Well, you could have fooled me ... Yes, we've bought ourselves some
time in Iraq by paying half of the insurgents to fight for us and to murder
their al-Qaeda cousins. Yes, we are continuing to prop up Saudi Arabia's
head-chopping and torture-practicing regime - no problem there, I suppose,
after our enthusiasm for "water-boarding" - but this does not mean al-Qaeda is
Because al-Qaeda is a way of thinking, not an army. It feeds on pain and fear
and cruelty - our cruelty and our oppression - and as long as we continue to
dominate the Muslim world with our Apache helicopters and our tanks and our
Humvees and our "friendly" dictators, so will al-Qaeda continue ...[The
Independent, June 1].
1. Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, "The Unraveling: Al-Qaeda's revolt
against bin Laden," New Republic, June 11, 2008, page 17.
2. Lawrence Wright, "The Rebellion Within: An al-Qaeda mastermind questions
terrorism," New Yorker (Internet version), May 26, 2008.
3. Shaykh Salman Bin-Fahd al-Awdah, "Letter to Usama Bin Ladin,"
Islamtoday.net, September 17, 2007.
4. "The Open Meeting with Shaykh Ayman al-Zawahiri, Part 1," Al-Sahab Media,
April 2, and Abu-Yaha al-Libi, "I am not a deceiver nor will I allow someone to
deceive me," Al-Sahab Media, March 10.
Michael Scheuer served in the CIA for 22 years before resigning in 2004.
He served as the chief of the bin Laden unit at the Counterterrorist Center
from 1996 to 1999. He is the once anonymous author of Imperial Hubris:
Why the West is Losing the War on Terror and the newly released Marching
Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq. Dr Scheuer is a senior fellow with
The Jamestown Foundation.