AMMAN, JORDAN: In a recent closed session of international intelligence and counterterrorism officials held in Washington D.C. a very high ranking US official made a simple yet counter-intuitive statement. The officer stated that it was the reasonable expectation of the US intelligence community that as the global operational capability of al Qaeda was successfully downgraded by the United States through its aggressive law enforcement, military and intelligence operations, the power and extent of its Salafist Jihadi ideology would weaken. The American government has been unpleasantly surprised that this is not in fact that case. While bin Laden may be limited in his influence to making infrequent audio and video statements instead of actually planning and directing terrorist operations against the US and its allies, it is exactly these statements and the ideology behind them that have grown in significance and which pose a greater danger to US interests.
Last year the community of academic analysts and counterterrorism professionals was witness to an unseemly argument between two leading scholars in the field. In public and in the pages of various journals, Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown and Marc Sageman, scholar in residence with the NYPD, came to theoretical blows over their assessments of the state of al Qaeda. Hoffman proposed that bin Laden and his organization still represent the gravest of threats to the US and that it retains high levels of operational command and control. Sageman, a former CIA psychologist who worked in Afghanistan in the 80s, vehemently protested and has written a book in which he argues that the original al Qaeda is no longer a significant threat but has been replaced instead by the phenomenon of “Leaderless Jihad,” wherein individuals and groups now self-radicalize and self-train and then execute attacks without the prior recruitment, inculcation or training and guidance of al Qaeda. In reality both Hoffman and Sageman are wrong. Data indicate that al Qaeda is not what it used to be in terms of organizational strength, but neither is it unconnected to the violence targeting civilians around the world. From the attacks in Madrid and London, and beyond to Amman Jordan, where I write this piece, the reality is one in which ideological leadership combines with operational influence - especially when it comes to training suicide attackers. Yet it is the changes in its ideological significance that are least well understood and which indicate its remarkable resilience and renewed popularity.
2008 saw a very significant increase in Salafi terrorism worldwide, from Russia to Somalia and from Pakistan to the Philippines. According to figures reported by one New York think-tank, the number of Islamist terrorist attacks increased to almost 600 by the end of last year, a threefold increase over the last four years agoâ? . If we subtract the figures for Afghanistan, Iraq and Israel the trendline is even more startling. Over the same period, global terrorism has increased 400%. And if we follow the data back even further to the late 1990s, to before the Bush presidency, the September 11th attacks and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the increase is shocking: a tenfold increase in Islamist terrorism attacks over the last decade.
Sitting here in Amman, Jordan, in perhaps the most forward-thinking and Westernized Arab nation in the Middle East, the ‘softer’ evidence for the increase in Islamist influence is apparent to anyone prepared to look beneath the surface. Even in the local English-language media aimed specifically at the Western visitor and the “enlightened” local elite, one can find a sub-text of lightly veiled militancy as well as the ever-persistent anti-Semitism. And this in the Muslim state that has been the closest and sincerest of allies to the US in the last eight years, especially after the triple suicide attacks of 2005, which Jordanian counterterrorism officers refer to as “our 9/11.” Elsewhere the picture is far worse. According to polling data from Western as well as local sources, bin Laden’s version of reality is the perceived wisdom of the vast majority.
While from Washington it seems absurd when Osama depicts a world in which the West is “at war with Islam,” in Pakistan a full 74% of the population believes that this is the reality behind America’s counterterrorism operations. As one exchange-officer working here in Amman said: “We’ve had enough of all the Americans in Pakistan.”
Elsewhere the situation is even worse. In Egypt more than 85% of the people believe that America is not motivated in its global policies by a desire to protect itself but by the goal of undermining and weakening Islam itself.*
The forensic evidence from the deadly attacks here in Amman, in Madrid, London and elsewhere prove that the perpetrators of the most spectacular suicide attacks were not members of the first generation of al Qaeda operatives that fought in Afghanistan or even Bosnia or Chechnya. Yet this younger generation of mass-murderers is connected to the mastermind behind 9/11, the East Africa embassy bombings, the USS Cole and the first WTC attack. In addition to providing training support and indoctrination, Bin laden must be understood as simply the most recent propagator of a decades old ideology. Salafi Jihad is not a post-Cold War construct. It was first given form 60 years ago by Islamist theologian Abul Ala Mawdudi. It was then further developed by Hassan al Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and his co-conspirator Sayyid Qutb. Finally it was made into a global product by bin Laden’s erstwhile superior, Abdullah Azzam, father of global jihad. In fact, although this totalitarian ideology was built on the ashes of fascism and communism, it relies upon even older constructs such as the takfiri, or apostasy, doctrine formulated by the 13th century Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyyah.
So what? How should the conclusions drawn from the above data effect the way in which America secures its future? What does it mean that al Qaeda has a real but limited operational influence upon the attacks executed against us, but that his ideological significance is growing?
It means, for example, that the “surge” in Afghanistan represents exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. Al Qaeda can identify and even train terrorists but its capacity to function as the operational command center of global terrorism is gone. Its significance today is in the spread of its message, in the increased adherence to its message of Holy War against the infidel, proliferating from South-East Asia to Europe and all the nations in between. As a result, the Obama administration should take its gloves off in the war of ideology.
Sending more troops to Afghanistan will not make us safer in the long run. It may not even make the Afghans safer on the long-run. Instead of focusing on obvious kinetic solutions and limply replacing the Global War on Terror with a “campaign against violent extremism” that commits us to countering everything from eco-terrorism to anti-abortion radicals, we must invest first and foremost in countering the latest totalitarianism, a hybrid totalitarianism that takes the most dangerous elements of fascism and communism and injects them with the certitude of religious conviction.
Sebastian L. v. Gorka PhD is founding director of the Institute for Democracy and International Security and associate fellow of the Joint Special Operations University. An internationally recognized expert on matters of national security and democratic transition, he advises and briefs at the highest levels to US Special Operations Command, SOUTHCOM and NATO. His new column: On Defending Democracy, with the Hudson Institute New York, focuses on stories and issues that the mainstream media do not cover. The author welcomes comments at email@example.com.
â? American Security Project: Are We Winning? Measuring Progress in the War on Terror: An Interim Update, Spring 2009.