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The Death of al Qaeda: Fawaz Gerges Edition

January 4, 2012

Few forms of writing are consistently less satisfying than “five myths” pieces. The genre, by its nature, tends toward shallow analysis and the propagation of conventional wisdom under the guise of puncturing conventional wisdom. But even for a weak genre, Fawaz Gerges’s new piece at the Huffington Post is noteworthy for the way it gets basic facts wrong, couples sweeping epistemological errors with an overarching arrogance, and erects its own myths while purporting to cut down “fantasies” about al Qaeda.

Gerges’s piece begins on a bad note, asserting without explanation that the recent uprisings in the Arab world have “hammered a deadly nail in the coffin of a terrorism narrative which has painted Al-Qaeda as the West’s greatest threat.” This statement, expressed with such certitude, represents a gigantic unproven assumption about which multiple Ph.D. dissertations could be authored. But the piece gets even worse in the second paragraph, in which Gerges declares: “Shrouded in myth and inflated by a self-sustaining industry of so-called terrorism ‘experts’ and a well-funded national security industrial complex whose numbers swelled to nearly one million, the power of Al-Qaeda can only be eradicated when the fantasies around the group are laid to rest.” Let’s leave aside the fact that, as Will McCants points out, it is laughable that Gerges places himself outside the “terrorism industry”: this is at its essence dishonest argumentation. Gerges is stating that all who disagree with him, by necessity, have suspect motives and should be distrusted.

That is a remarkable statement, especially because — like so many “five myths” pieces — Gerges in fact peddles several pieces of conventional wisdom while insisting that he is the one puncturing widely held myths. After all, when we have an administration claiming that al Qaeda has “been reduced to just two figures whose demise would mean the group’s defeat,” the idea that al Qaeda is dying or dead isn’t exactly revolutionary. Perhaps, rather than impugning the motives of those who do not share his outlook, Gerges should be more modest in understanding that many widely-held assumptions of the past decade have been proven wrong — and Gerges himself is no exception with respect to having a record of botched predictions. Of course, the fact that Gerges has been wrong before in pronouncing al Qaeda dead doesn’t mean that he won’t be right one day. So let’s take a look at Gerges’s arguments, and some of the “myths” that he punctures.

Myth: Al Qaeda Has Been Operational for More Than Two Decades

This is by far the most puzzling of Gerges’s various “myths.” He writes that, contrary to “the conventional terrorism narrative,” al Qaeda “has not been a functional organization with the goal of targeting the West for the past 20 years.” The reason behind this argument is that no leading figures within al Qaeda called for targeting the U.S. at the end of the Afghan war in 1989. Indeed, Gerges writes: “Even after the catalyst for change in bin Laden’s thinking — the American military intervention in the Gulf in 1990 and its permanent stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia — the group did not translate this hostility into concrete action. Rather, it was during bin Laden’s time in Sudan in the mid-1990s where [sic] he combined business practices with ideological indoctrination.”

The passage is puzzling because it is dead wrong. Contrary to the assertion that al Qaeda has not targeted the West “for the past 20 years,” it was exactly 20 years ago that al Qaeda first translated its hostility into concrete action (or, to be more precise, 19 years and one month ago). In 1992, al Qaeda orchestrated a December bombing of two hotels in Yemen that housed U.S. soldiers en route to the Horn of Africa for Operation Restore Hope (a U.N.- sanctioned humanitarian mission to Somalia). Al Qaeda also took concrete action by sending military trainers to Mogadishu prior to the October 1993 downing of a U.S. helicopter in Mogadishu. Most observers are skeptical that these trainers played a role in this infamous incident, but my point is not that al Qaeda got results: rather, the point is that al Qaeda did indeed take “concrete action” twenty years ago, a fact that isn’t difficult to ascertain.

Myth: While Al Qaeda Central Suffered a Defeat with the Loss of Bin Laden, Local “Branches” Will Continue to Try to Attack the West

This is another puzzling “myth” for Gerges to try to bust. Here is Gerges’s complete refutation of the idea that branches of al Qaeda will continue to try to launch attacks:

The material links and connections between local branches and Al-Qaeda Central are tenuous at best: far from being an institutionally coherent social movement, Al-Qaeda is a loose collection of small groups and factions that tend to be guided by charismatic individuals and are more local than transnational in outlook. Most victims are therefore Muslim civilians. Further, these branches tend to be as much a liability for the long term strategic interests of Al-Qaeda Central as they are assets. Abu Musab Zarqawi, the emir of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, proved to be Al-Qaeda Central’s worst enemy. He refused to take orders from bin Laden or Zawahiri and, in fact, acted against their wishes, according to his own desires. Like Zarqawi, local groups or franchises — like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb — which the terrorism narrative often paints as being closely aligned and commanded by Al-Qaeda Central in fact have proven repeatedly that they run by their own local and contextualized agendas, not those set among the inner sanctum of Al-Qaeda Central.

Okay, what is missing from his refutation of this “myth”? That’s right — any refutation at all. If you pay close attention, the claim that local branches are not closely linked to al Qaeda’s central leadership doesn’t in fact mean that they won’t continue to try to attack the West. Gerges even names AQAP as a group that isn’t “closely aligned and commanded by Al-Qaeda Central” — but what has AQAP done over the past two years? It has successfully placed three bombs on board airplanes destined for the United States in the attempted Christmas Day bombing of 2009 and the subsequent ink cartridge plot of October 2010. Gerges in fact mentions the Christmas Day bombing without noting that it was orchestrated by AQAP, which supposedly is not going to try to attack the West — perhaps because mentioning that salient fact would puncture his own myths. (It is worth further noting that AQAP’s emir, Nasir al Wuhayshi, was an understudy of bin Laden’s; and AQAP was set up in a manner similar to al Qaeda central. For that reason, Leah Farrall, a former senior counterterrorism intelligence analyst for the Australian federal police, wrote in Foreign Affairs that AQAP is best understood as a branch of al Qaeda rather than a franchise. After all, it “was created by, and continues to operate under, the leadership of core al Qaeda members.”)

Moreover, is it actually true that “the material links and connections between local branches and Al-Qaeda Central are tenuous at best”? How does Gerges know this? The notion that the connections between al Qaeda central and its affiliates were tenuous had become the conventional wisdom among terrorism analysts (or, some might say, had hardened into a myth) before bin Laden was killed. And yet, as an Associated Press report published shortly after bin Laden’s death noted, analysts who examined the information recovered from his Abbottabad compound came to believe that bin Laden “was a lot more involved in directing al Qaeda personnel and operations than sometimes thought over the last decade,” and that he had been providing strategic guidance to al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia.

So, analysts were wrong about al Qaeda’s central leadership being operationally irrelevant before. Do we somehow know that the links are tenuous now? The answer is a resounding no. Let me quote myself from December 30: “The methods of communication now being used by Zawahiri are the kind of methods the world’s monarchs would have used 200 or 300 years ago: couriers. This avoidance of e-mail and electronic transmissions that could be uncovered by SIGINT limits our visibility of the network.” In other words, the evidence most definitely is not there to bear out Gerges’s claim about the lack of relation between AQ’s core and affiliates — and those who previously adhered to this view turned out to be wrong when the Abbottabad documents gave us more visibility. This reinforces my point about the need for modesty when making definitive judgments — and an important part of being modest is distinguishing between what one knows and what one does not.

Myth: The War on Terror Has Made Americans Safer

As Jeff Emanuel noted on Twitter, I have also argued that the “war on terror” has not made us safer — so I am not going to take issue with the fact that our approach has been problematic. Hell, I wrote a whole book on this point. But even here Gerges manages to completely misrepresent the extant literature. “U.S. counterterrorism measures like drone attacks further fuel anti-American sentiments and calls for vengeance,” he writes. “Yet neither the U.S. national security apparatus nor terrorism experts acknowledge a link between the new phenomenon of bottom-up extremism and the U.S. War on Terror, particularly in Afghanistan-Pakistan.”

Wait, what? Terrorism experts and the “national security apparatus” do not “acknowledge a link between the new phenomenon of bottom-up extremism and the U.S. War on Terror”? Well… in July I stated in an interview, “Turn to Somalia, where we’re escalating drone strikes. What we’re doing there is a tremendous mistake…. Look at the history of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. It found aid and comfort from the tribes in Yemen after U.S. airstrikes ended up killing a number of tribal leaders in the hunt for Anwar al-Awlaki. That’s a result of us not really knowing the terrain. We carry out strikes without knowing the second-and-third order effects of what’ll happen.” Then there is the well-known New York Times op-ed from David Kilcullen (a fixture of the U.S. national security apparatus) and Andrew Exum, examining drone strikes in Afghanistan-Pakistan. It is unsubtly entitled “Death from Above, Outrage Down Below.” There is terrorism expert Marc Sageman, who writes in Leaderless Jihad of the connection between bottom-up extremism and the war on terror, stating that the “presence of even one American soldier in uniform in Iraq will trump any goodwill policy the United States attempts to carry out in the Middle East.” And these are just a few examples off the top of my head; I could likely provide more than a hundred quotes on this point from terrorism analysts and others in the “national security apparatus.” If Gerges is going to argue that an entire body of analysts have a gigantic blind spot, he should have at least a passing familiarity with what those analysts actually say.

Conclusion: So, Is Al Qaeda Dead?

Gerges’s piece begins where it started, with the assertion that the Arab uprisings have killed al Qaeda. “Tyranny, dismal social conditions, authoritarian political systems, and the absence of hope provide the fuel that powers radical, absolutist ideologies in the Muslim world,” he writes. “If the Arab awakenings of the past year manage to fill the gap of legitimate political authority, they will annihilate the last dregs of Al-Qaeda and like-minded local branches.”

Maybe? It’s not clear how awakenings in the Arab world can “annihilate” al Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan. How will the Arab uprisings annihilate al Shabaab in Somalia? And the chaos in Yemen has resulted in anything but an annihilation of AQAP. I have written previously about why the “Arab Spring” doesn’t inevitably sound the death knell for al Qaeda, and I won’t repeat those arguments here. Suffice it to say that it’s ironic that a piece asking us to critically assess the conventional wisdom to puncture fantasy in turn offers up its own set of seemingly unexamined myths.

This is not to say that one cannot reasonably argue that al Qaeda is in decline. Will McCants and William Roseneau make reasonable arguments to that effect here, and other scholars whom I respect have advanced similar points. But in engaging in this debate, it is vital to be humble in assessing what we know and what we do not, and to be careful with the facts we bandy about. Gerges’s article is a perfect model for how this discussion should not proceed.

9 Comments
  1. January 5, 2012 9:44 am

    Oh boy. I feel much less sympathy for Fawaz now that he’s at LSE than I would have when he was at Sarah Lawrence. Also, excellent use of the word “salient” – as I recall that was practically a Gerges catchphrase back in the day. Good, solid evisceration.

    One minor note: the December 1992 bombings would have been 20 years and 11 months ago, not 19 years and 11 months.

  2. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross permalink
    January 5, 2012 9:50 am

    Thanks for the comment, Graham! I had to go over this a couple of times after reading your comment, but I think my original statement was correct about 19 years and 11 months. The 20-year anniversary of the December 1992 attacks will be December 2012. Thus, we’re still 11 months away.

    • January 5, 2012 11:58 am

      Ah, I think we were both wrong: if the 20 year anniversary is 11 months away, then it’s been 19 years and ONE month. But that’s what I get for attempting mental math in the morning. But of course, everything else still stands; great piece!

      • Daveed Gartenstein-Ross permalink
        January 5, 2012 12:42 pm

        Graham: Quite right. I had been thinking that it was twenty years ago MINUS eleven months, but somehow wrote that it was 19 years and 11 months ago instead. Will edit the above. Thanks.

  3. Kerberus of Styx permalink
    January 5, 2012 12:38 pm

    It just takes one exception to an apparently positive trend to create catastrophe.

  4. Ronan permalink
    January 6, 2012 12:43 am

    Out of curiosity, whats your issue with Gerges? Im no expert on Al Qaeda, but in general find him quite informative. Is this one of those academic ‘beefs’ Im better of ignoring?

    • Daveed Gartenstein-Ross permalink
      January 6, 2012 9:42 am

      No issue with Gerges; no academic beef. I had a big issue with what he wrote, and when I am issuing what I refer to as “eviscerations” over Twitter, I will always make the strongest case possible. But that doesn’t mean that I have an overarching personal or professional problem with him; I even cite to his work in a positive light in my new book (p. 241, note 39).

      As a comparison, I issued a stinging critique of Charles Kurzman’s 2010 study “Anti-Terror Lessons of Muslim-Americans,” which I described as (and would continue to call) a “complete methodological failure.” See http://bit.ly/g2Ml8a. But I did not have the same problem with two of his subsequent works, and had generally positive things to say about them (albeit with some points of disagreement) at http://bit.ly/nxVCIJ and http://bit.ly/xeMAyJ.

      So I generally don’t engage in “beefs”; but I believe that sloppy, uninformed, or dishonest work should be called out for what it is.

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