Having inherited a sound and expanding organization and the very media-marketable memory of bin Laden’s ministrations and exploits, prudently managed, al-Zawahiri’s assets are more than sufficient to keep al-Qaeda in a position to help feckless U.S. politicians promote America’s financial ruin for decades to come. And worse.
AL-ZAWAHIRI IS at least as committed as bin Laden was to acquiring a nuclear device to use in the United States; assisting the Afghan Taliban to reestablish its Islamic Emirate; continuing to recoup al-Qaeda’s fortunes in Iraq in order to keep inserting fighters into the Levant states and to prepare for Iraq’s inevitable Shia-Sunni civil war; and using al-Qaeda and other mujahideen media to incite the coming generation of Muslims—especially in the English-speaking world—to join the jihad. Like his predecessor, al-Zawahiri believes martyrdom missions inflict the most damage on the enemy at the least cost to the insurgents.
Al-Qaeda sans bin Laden will change, but merely because long-planned strategies are reaching maturity. Under an al-Zawahiri-led al-Qaeda, the portfolio of attack types will expand, meaning a program of less deadly but more frequent bombings in the West. Though bin Laden long preferred large-scale terrorism in the United States and wanted the attack that followed 9/11 to be even bigger than those on “the blessed Tuesday” (and there is no reason to doubt planning for a large follow-up continues; indeed, material from bin Laden’s Abbottabad house shows such intent), the data found depicts bin Laden’s interest in infrastructure targets, surface transportation and prominent individuals. Iraq is the laboratory for this change in plan.
Already under way in that Mesopotamian theater is al-Qaeda’s slow but steady campaign to recover from al-Zarqawi’s wild festival of indiscriminate, bisectarian murder. It was, of course, the negative impact of al-Zarqawi’s savagery against Sunni Iraqis that allowed the U.S. surge to temporarily succeed: no al-Zarqawi slaughter, no alienated Sunnis, and so no basis for the “Awakening.” (Without an al-Zarqawi-like figure in Afghanistan for U.S.-NATO forces to exploit, a similar effort was impossible.) But al-Qaeda was not eliminated by the surge—it merely dispersed to areas in Iraq and the Levant to refit and begin a comeback.
The resurgence now approaches. Forced by the al-Zarqawi-led brutality to clarify appropriate target sets, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri proffered their mea culpas, reenfranchised Iraqis and delegitimized the Western narrative. The two men praised al-Zarqawi for killing U.S. and coalition soldiers while also explicitly noting that the indiscriminate killing of Sunni and Shia Iraqis was wrong in Islamic terms, was not al-Qaeda policy and would not recur. Bin Laden in particular managed to simultaneously substantively reject the West’s Islam-forbids-the-killing-of-one-Muslim-by-another-in-all-cases-whatsoever spin on al-Zarqawi’s behavior. (Interestingly, the Obama administration, its European allies, and much of the U.S. media and academy still peddle this nonsense, most recently pointing out bin Laden’s continued concern about the issue right before he died. Well, no kidding; trying to undo what al-Zarqawi did had been at the top of bin Laden’s agenda since 2006.) Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri correctly pointed out that there are Muslims on all continents and in all countries; the West’s incorrect, absolutist interpretation of Islamic law on this issue would allow it to use domestic Muslims as human shields and negate the ability of the Islamic world to respond to Western attacks. To reduce the West’s contention to its rightful status as a patent absurdity, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri might have asked if the Christian God’s thou-shalt-not-kill commandment is an absolute in all cases whatsoever.
Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri went further still. If al-Qaeda, its allies and those it inspires were going to wage their jihad effectively, they would have to kill Muslims. Thus, the remaining job was to define those Muslims who were religiously permissible targets. The two men did this job splendidly. In the Salafist interpretation of Sunni Islamic law, Muslims who actively support an apostate regime or an infidel occupier sacrifice the protection afforded by their faith; their lives and wealth can be taken. Soldiers, bureaucrats, security and intelligence officers, and elected or appointed government officials serving apostate regimes or foreign occupiers are therefore legitimate targets. It is individuals in these categories who have been al-Qaeda in Iraq’s primary victims as it tries to recoup al-Zarqawi-caused losses, and there has been little to no negative reaction from Iraq’s Sunni community or other Islamic regimes and scholars outside Iraq. Al-Qaeda’s focus on these categories of Muslims as legitimate targets is likely to harden into an organization-wide policy and will be supported by rapid and cogent rejections from senior leaders of further Western contentions that one Muslim cannot kill another. This leaves a reinvigorated al-Qaeda with an expanded and well-defined target set.
Armored in emboldened doctrine and rejuvenated recruits, al-Qaeda has now moved on to the training and implementation stage of its next attack pattern. As al-Qaeda in Iraq works to reclaim lost ground and allies, it is using attacks that fit the definition of targetable Muslims and cover the gamut of smaller operations. Oil pipelines, storage tanks and electrical-distribution assets have been sabotaged; military, security and police bases, stations and recruiting offices have all been hit by bombings and/or small-group assaults, as have national and provincial government ministries; and assassinations of government officials, bureaucrats, senior security officers and Sunni tribal chiefs working with the Baghdad regime have become part of daily life. (It is worth noting that Fort Hood and at least four U.S. military recruiting posts have been attacked by domestic Islamists in the last few years.) Iraq today has allowed al-Qaeda to practice, refine and teach (via the Internet) its host of revised tactics. Given the multinational makeup of al-Qaeda’s force in Iraq, there is no reason to doubt that those who graduate from this school will be sent abroad to ply their lethal trade.
Ayman al-Zawahiri has a chance to advance al-Qaeda’s work to an extent that bin Laden may have just begun to see in his last months. Having an opportunity and exploiting it are two different things, however, and al-Zawahiri’s personality, earlier operational record, multiple detractors as well as the absence of bin Laden’s steadying hand certainly leave open the possibility that he will fly the next plane into a mountain rather than, say, the rebuilt Pentagon. But we must not count on al-Zawahiri being anything other than what he has appeared to be since 1998: a rational, prudent, brave, dedicated and media-savvy leader.
BEYOND LEADERSHIP crises, changing tactics and mounting operations is one steadfast reality: al-Qaeda’s indispensable, long-term and utterly reliable ally—Washington’s interventionist foreign policy—remains the group’s true center of gravity. It is a galvanizing force which cannot be harmed, let alone destroyed, until U.S. leaders in politics, the media, religion (especially evangelical Protestants), the military and the academy begin to accept the truth; that is, the United States government is hated by most Muslims for what it does in the Islamic world, and not for how Americans think and behave at home. Needless to say, an enemy with such an unassailable core is pretty formidable, if not impregnable.
As al-Zawahiri takes charge, the U.S. government continues to: arm and defend the Saudi police state; depend on oil and debt purchases from Riyadh and other oil-rich Gulf tyrannies; keep military forces in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan; fund and defend Israel; fund and direct a new U.S.-NATO war on Libya; and assist the UN, EU and George Clooney in tearing out the oil-rich southern region of Muslim Sudan and giving it to a new Christian state. In other words, the powerful religious motivation for al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups to fight the United States and the West remains exactly what it was when bin Laden declared war in 1996—Israel, oil, intervention, occupation and support for tyranny.
And one other key thing remains the same. President Obama continues to glibly lie to U.S. citizens, claiming—as did Presidents Bush and Clinton—that al-Qaeda, its allies and those they inspire are attacking us because they hate freedom, liberty, democracy, gender equality, elections and virtually every other thing Americans hold dear. The script of these presidents deftly scares U.S. citizens and ably prevents substantive foreign-policy debate. It is useless, however, for educating Americans about the deadly and growing enemy they face, one that hates their government, not them. There is no better recruiting strategy for the mujahideen in all parts of the globe than to pray for the maintenance of the status quo in U.S. and Western foreign policy in the Muslim world. With Obama et al at the helm, they have little to worry about.
In fact, the administration continues to hand over a gift-wrapped advantage to al-Qaeda and the mujahideen, for U.S. military defeat is an inevitability. The West tends to forget that the Afghan insurgents’ 1989 rout of the Soviet army in Afghanistan was the key motivator for Osama bin Laden’s generation to join the jihad. The Red Army’s loss alone was not enough to destroy what was and is a deeply ingrained sense of defeatism in the Muslim world, but it did foster the belief that infidel powers are not destined to win each and every time they fight Muslims. For over a decade, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri led a charge to wipe out defeatism; they saw it as the biggest threat to Islam’s survival. Indeed, one reason bin Laden strove so mightily—and finally successfully—to lure the United States into Afghanistan was his belief that U.S. forces would be easier to beat than the Russians (objectively true) and that by defeating the mighty Western superpower, the back of Muslim defeatism would be broken (we will see).Image: Pullquote: The motivation for al-Qaeda to fight the United States is the same as when bin Laden declared war in 1996—Israel, oil, intervention, occupation and support for tyranny.Essay Types: Essay