Ryan Evans finds that Fawaz Gerges delivers a characteristically assertive message in his recent book: that Al-Qaeda, the ‘mutant step-child of the Islamist movement’, is in severe decline and was never as dangerous to Western civilization as it is commonly made out to be.
The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda. Fawaz Gerges. Oxford University Press. September 2011.
In The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda, Professor Fawaz Gerges returns to familiar terrain. His books, Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy and especially The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global, are staples of graduate courses on terrorism, Islamism, and Middle East politics in the United States and Great Britain. For the last twenty years, his published analysis has often made people on both sides of an issue uncomfortable – sometimes a sign that a scholar is doing something right.
In this slim volume, Gerges provides (as the title promises) an accessible and intelligent account of al-Qaeda’s fortunes and misfortunes since its creation. It qualifies as revisionist, not least due to Gerges’ willingness to challenge by name other established scholars in the field. Gerges disputes the prevailing hypothesis that the terrorist group was founded at the end of the 1980s, but rather did not truly coalesce until the mid-1990s in Sudan. He argues al-Qaeda did not take on an operational, organized, and transnational character until after Bin Laden had returned to Afghanistan in 1996. And it was not formally launched until 1998. The al-Qaeda that some claim Bin Laden founded in late 1987 or early 1988 in Peshawar was not a structured transnational terrorist organization, according to Gerges, but “a training base.”
Gerges delivers a characteristically assertive message: Al-Qaeda, the mutant step-child of the Islamist movement, is in severe decline and was never as dangerous to Western civilization as it is commonly made out to be. However, entrenched interests in the West – especially in the US – are unwilling to acknowledge this. A ‘dominant terrorism narrative’ driven by a mixture of fear and budget-interests is stoked by politicians and ‘so-called terrorism experts.’ Rather than reporting on al-Qaeda’s deteriorating capabilities, Western media outlets do not stray far from the ‘narrative.’
For Gerges, this over-reaction isn’t just limited to the halls of government, but has bled into the ivory tower, which has its halls packed by graduate students and post-doctoral fellows chasing buckets of grant money for terrorism-related topics. Moreover, the politics of fear ‘have driven military adventurism, provided the environment for a mushrooming national debt, and militarized domestic affairs….’
It is easy to sympathize with Gerges’ line of argument (if not always his tone). Indeed, other authors have made similar points. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross bemoans over-spend and over-reaction in his latest book, Bin Laden’s Legacy.
But while Gartenstein-Ross focuses on the risk of the U.S. defeating itself, Gerges takes it further. For Gerges, the fact that the received wisdom in the West is that al-Qaeda and 9/11 ever had significant positive sentiment in the Muslim world is the biggest tragedy and consequence of the Western over-reaction. He argues that ‘transnational jihad has never enjoyed a big constituency in Muslim societies’ and that ‘with the exception of one or two pockets of refugee camps, the Muslim world did not see September 11 as a triumph but as a catastrophe.’ Elsewhere he states the group has ‘never had a viable social constituency.’
In making this argument, however, Gerges finds himself at odds with polling data conducted throughout the Muslim world on this very subject since 9/11. While high numbers in the Muslim world condemn the attacks, a majority do not believe Arabs carried them out (presumably because it was a US/Zionist conspiracy?). And while polling data from the Pew Global Attitudes Project show that by 2011, support for Bin Laden had fallen dramatically throughout the Muslim world, it dropped from a considerable level, most notably in the Palestinian Territories, Indonesia, Jordan, Nigeria, and Pakistan (see figures from 2003-2011). Even by 2011, 34% of Palestinians, 26% of Indonesians, 22% of Egyptians, and 13% of Jordanians (sadly 2011 numbers are not available for Pakistan) expressed support for Bin Laden. While this is a dramatic fall from 2003 levels of support – which reached 72% in the Palestinian Territories, 59% in Indonesia, and 56% in Jordan – significant support endures: millions in each of these countries.
Two caveats here: One, US foreign policy has its own impact. 2003 was also the year of the American-led invasion of Iraq, which Gerges rightly describes as ‘a godsend to al-Qaeda.’ And two, support and participation are not the same thing. As such, these not-insignificant levels of support have not translated into the mass jihadist-insurgent movement al-Qaeda sought to build.
Yet, even if we were to concede Gerges argument, he repeats the logical fallacy of confusing numbers of adherents with power. Terrorism has never relied on mass movements and high levels of support for success. Terrorism is a method for those violent political actors who are unable to muster a mass movement in a given area. Terrorist movements of the past, such as the anarchist movement, have never required numbers to achieve upheaval, upset the international order, and change history.
Moreover, Gerges falls into the trap of many of his fellow al-Qaeda scholars – he imagines a firewall between violent transnational Islamism and the broader Islamist movement. Throughout the book he characterizes al-Qaeda as something apart from the Islamist movement and shies away from including them in the same category, no matter what the category might be. Yet, both historically and presently, there remains traffic (what social scientists call cross-cutting ties) between the two. There is no doubt that al-Qaeda seeks to realize its vision through drastically different means than other adherents of political Islam newly empowered in the wake of the Arab Spring – most notably, the Muslim Brotherhood – but the end goal is shared: an Islamic state governed by Shari’ah.
The anarchist movement contained the violent bomb-throwers of People’s Will along with those who believed in achieving their utopia through open and legal political activism. The Islamist movement is no different in its diversity, while still also being one social movement. As such, it is hard to accept Gerges’ insistence that al-Qaeda is an ‘anomaly’ of the Islamist movement. It makes more sense to understand al-Qaeda as a logical consequence of the movement’s internal contradictions, its ideology, and the effect of successful state repression on a core of frustrated activists (as argued by Gilles Kepel and Al Zawahiri himself). And as with all social movements, the Islamist movement is better understood as an organic whole, while still making distinctions between its various components.
This does not necessarily demand a revision of Gerges’ central argument: Western powers have mal-managed and over-reacted to a manageable, non-existential threat in strategic decline. Indeed, Gerges is on solid ground when he expresses hope that ‘bin Laden’s demise will mark the end of al-Qaeda’s grip on the American imagination, as well as put a closure to the War on Terror. It is time to close this costly chapter and shift to a containment strategy to deal with the remnants of al-Qaeda and its local partners.’
Although, there is room for disagreement with his prescriptions and his analysis does ask for more context in this otherwise useful contribution to the literature.
Ryan Evans is a Research Fellow at the Center for National Policy in Washington, DC. He specializes in the conflict in Afghanistan, civil society and foreign policy in Turkey and Egypt, and Islamist mobilization. From 2010-11, Evans worked for the US Army’s Human Terrain System in Afghanistan where he was embedded as a social scientist supporting the British-led Task Force Helmand. For his PhD research at the King’s College London War Studies Department, Evans is examining the relationship between Islamic political activism and foreign and security policies in Turkey and Egypt. Read more reviews by Ryan.