The State of the Enemy

TCS Daily

January 30, 2006

As President Bush prepares to give his annual address on the State of the Union (I predict it will be “strong”) it is time to reflect on the state of our enemy.

Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon argue in a New York Times op-ed that al Qaeda is still quite strong, mostly because we are not doing enough to counter them in the propaganda wars. They contend that, while the Administration is taking bin Laden’s call for a truce as a sign of weakness, it was instead the “magnanimous” gesture of a man who thinks he is winning.

They cite the “emerging breed of self-starter terrorists” such as those who carried out the London and Madrid bombings and “the radicalization of Iraqis who will continue the insurgency or travel abroad to kill” demonstrate that he is right.

There are, however, some pretty strong signs that al Qaeda is losing. Benjamin and Simon are almost certainly correct in their reading of bin Laden’s position. He quite likely does think he is winning. Arrogant, even delusional, overconfidence is a part of his job description.

It’s true, too, that Jihadis and terrorists will continue to be able to kill people regardless of what happens to Osama and his umbrella organization. In the main battlefront, Iraq, though, the signs are finally pointing in the other direction.

The Australian reports that Iraqi insurgents and al Qaeda terrorists are killing each other in Ramadi in a series of “tit-for-tat assassinations” that have killed “at least three prominent figures on both sides.” Earlier in the week, Reuters reported large anti-al Qaeda demonstrations in Samarra. While anecdotal, this follows a trend we’ve been seeing recently, as the goals of the foreign Jihadists and domestic guerrillas increasingly diverge.

Slate‘s Christopher Hitchens points to other signs as well, including, “a reported and believable split within al-Qaeda’s own ranks.” He cites a recent letter from al Qaeda number two Zawahiri to Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi and other signs of “a real crisis for the bearded nutbag whose very name used to terrify even some of the stoutest in the West.” McQ, a defense analyst at the QandO blog, notes that Zarqawi has been pushed aside as “emir” of the fledgling Mujahedeen Shura, a coalition of “six extremist organizations” working in Iraq.

Ronald Reagan’s famous question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” would not serve bin Laden well. Hitchens writes:

“I have been attacked for callousness and worse for saying that Bin Laden did us a favor on 9/11, but I am increasingly sure I was right. Until that date, he partially owned Afghanistan and his supporters were moving steadily toward the Talibanization of Pakistan as well. There were al-Qaeda sympathizers within the Pakistani intelligence services, armed forces, and nuclear establishment (which then included the A.Q. Khan network). There was also an active Saudi support system, consisting mainly of vast tranches of money, for jihadism worldwide. Now, Afghanistan is lost to Bin Laden and Pakistan has had, at least officially, to modify its behavior considerably. The A.Q. Khan network has been shut down. The Saudi ruling class identifies its state interest with a repudiation of al-Qaeda, inside and outside its own borders. And the one remaining regime that openly preached holy war and helped train jihadist forces like the “Fedayeen Saddam”—the pseudo-secular terror state in Iraq—has been irretrievably smashed. Wherever Bin Laden is now, it cannot be where he wanted or hoped to be four and a half years ago.”

Furthermore, “since 2001 there have been hideous assaults in Spain, Turkey, England, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Kenya, Iraq, Jordan, and Indonesia. I know of no evidence to suggest that this has increased Bin Laden’s following in any country, and of considerable evidence to the contrary.”

A BBC poll released earlier in the week shows that Iraqis and Afghans are incredibly optimistic about their economic future. None of that means that al Qaeda won’t be able to stage some more strikes and kill some more people, much less that we’ll ultimately succeed in Iraq.

Still, wars are fought for strategic goals. Al Qaeda announced theirs in a 1998 declaration of Jihad. As summarized by Michael Scheuer, they were:

  • The end of U.S. aid to Israel and the ultimate elimination of that state;
  • The removal of U.S. and Western forces from the Arabian peninsula;
  • The removal of U.S. and Western military forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Muslim lands;
  • The end of U.S. support for the oppression of Muslims by Russia, China, and India;
  • The end of U.S. protection for repressive, apostate Muslim regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, et cetera;
  • The conservation of the Muslim world’s energy resource and their sale at higher prices. How is it going for the Jihadists?

The reality:

  • Israel is stronger than ever and U.S. support could hardly be stronger. The 9/11 attacks, if anything, solidified U.S.-Israeli relations, since it brought home the everyday far of terrorist attacks Israelis endure on a daily basis.
  • Western forces have indeed left Saudi Arabia, only to be mobilized and reinforced in Arab lands.
  • Western forces are deeply entrenched in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Muslim lands and have toppled the first two regimes and strongly influenced the direction of others, notably Pakistan.
  • The U.S. still does not support oppression of Muslims in Russia, China, or India but is certainly less sympathetic to the Chechnyan cause than before 9/11.
  • The U.S. has drawn closer to the governments in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, and Jordan, although it is pushing for serious democratization.
  • Oil prices have gone up rather dramatically, although owing more to economic growth in China and India than events in the Middle East.

Bin Laden might think he is winning. The facts, however, do not bear him out.

Original article