The New Yorker
July 17, 2009
The Al Qaeda Paradox
Compared with their position in the period from 2002 to 2004, Al Qaeda and its affiliates, such as Jemaah Islamiya in Indonesia (which has been involved in hotel bombings similar to the attack today on the Marriott and the Ritz-Carlton in Jakarta), have become politically marginalized. Opinion polling, election results, and theological discourse all describe an Al Qaeda network that has been rejected by the great majority of Muslims. Al Qaeda has largely brought this outcome upon itself. Unlike Hezbollah and Hamas, it has never developed a political strategy that appealed successfully to the craving among many Muslims for justice and better governance. Al Qaeda runs no schools or hospitals and it competes in no trade-union elections. It operates no semi-legitimate political front, as Hezbollah and Hamas do.
Why has Al Qaeda isolated itself in this way, particularly when there are alternative models, such as Hezbollah, lying in plain sight? There is a strong millenarian streak in the belief systems of Osama bin Laden and some of his colleagues; they believe that God ordained the war they are fighting and that its outcome is in many ways predetermined. Also, bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, simply lack political skills. They are modern men, but, unlike the leaders of Hezbollah, they lack a vision of modern politics. They have randomly murdered far too many of their own potential followers. Their idea of justice is abstract and distant—it involves the punishment of unbelievers, some of them living far away, and not the righting of wrongs close at hand, whether those wrongs are unemployment, or routine local problems such as grazing, or boundary disputes. Al Qaeda has been up and running formally for twenty-one years now. By this point in the history of the Soviet Communist movement, Lenin had seized control of a great state. By this point in the history of Cuban Communism, Castro was in Havana. And Osama? He’s hunkered down along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, a fugitive “guest” with a price on his head, waiting for death, embedded in a political economy that is a cross between Gaza and the New Jersey of “The Sopranos.” By the lights of its own announced ambitions in 2001, then, at least in political terms, Al Qaeda has failed.
And yet the network remains militarily resilient, as the TV screens today remind us. From its safe houses in North Waziristan, or through its underground network from Europe to Jakarta, Al Qaeda can occasionally pull together a group of five or ten people who can organize crude attacks undetected. These operators keep going back to the same soft targets, apparently because they lack the skills to pull off something more impressive. Again, think of Hezbollah—over the years, with Iranian support, it has matured militarily to the point where it was able, in 2006, to fight the Israeli Defense Forces to a standstill in semi-conventional combat over a period of months. By comparison, Al Qaeda and its far-flung, often disconnected gangs look rather incompetent. They did try a September 11th redux in the summer of 2006, in Britain, a plot that showed imagination and daring (liquid explosives dyed to look like sports drinks; camera batteries as detonators), but they failed before launch. Last fall, Mumbai also suggested some new tactical approaches drawn from the Kashmir war and the old secular Palestinian playbook: media-shaped commando raids, hostage-taking, and associated drama. We have seen a few of these media raids recently in Pakistan, such as the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket players in Lahore. But the Jakarta bombings are a true indicator of Al Qaeda’s present military capability, as is observable in its pattern of attacks: low-technology terrorism that is repetitive, limited, politically self-defeating, and yet capable of creating shocks, and still driven by an aspiration—if not any apparent capacity—to pull off another big one every so often. American intelligence officials believe that Al Qaeda’s military capacity is considerably diminished today compared with what it was even a year ago, as a result of the pressure it has come under in Pakistan. Even if that is true, bombings like the ones in Jakarta will recur for an indefinite time.
This, then, is the conundrum facing American counterterrorism policy and the Obama Administration: in a strategic sense, Al Qaeda is contained, and yet it can continue to make enough noise and attract enough media attention to shape political discourse in the United States and elsewhere. The correct response to this paradox is to develop in the United States a posture of strategic patience about terrorism that is durable, vigilant, and proportional to the actual threat. Achieving this, however, would require a much stronger national political consensus about terrorism and American responses to it, so that this subject is no longer a legitimate arena for the manipulative and demagogic politics of the Cheney school.
The United States did find such strategic patience—and such politics, for the most part—during the Cold War. As for terrorism, there are encouraging examples in other democracies. Britain eventually found a politics-proof consensus to outlast the Irish Republican Army. Indian voters just resoundingly returned to office a Congress government that responded to the Mumbai attacks with extraordinary restraint. Indonesia has already rejected the violence of the Jemaah Islamiya, and these bombings will only reinforce that national consensus. If only something similar were afoot in Washington.