June 4, 2008 | Op-ed

How to Measure al Qaeda’s Defeat

 In an article published in the Washington Post on Friday May 30, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden is quoted as portraying al Qaeda movement as


“essentially defeated in Iraq and Saudi Arabia and on the defensive throughout much of the rest of the world, including in its presumed haven along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.”


The article said Hayden asserts that


“Osama bin Laden is losing the battle for hearts and minds in the Islamic world and has largely forfeited his ability to exploit the Iraq war to recruit adherents.” More importantly, the article quotes the chief intelligence declaring a “near strategic defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq; near strategic defeat for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia; significant setbacks for al-Qaeda globally — and here I’m going to use the word ‘ideologically’ — as a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of Islam.”


These powerful declarations prompted a series of reactions and debates both in political and counter terrorism circles, causing loud media discussions. The main but simple question of interest to the public, and subsequently to voters in the US and other Democracies, is this:


Is al Qaeda being defeated?


However more complex questions arise from the CIA Director’s statements, which if answered accurately would leave the main assertion still unclear. Following are few of these strategic questions:


If al Qaeda is being defeated, who is defeating it? Is it the US and the West, the Arab and Muslim moderates, or other Jihadists? If Usama Bin Laden is being challenged by his own members, ex members or non al Qaeda Jihadists, how can that be determined as a defeat and to whom?


Would a coup inside al Qaeda be of interest to Washington if the new team is as Jihadist but not as “Bin Ladenist”? Or is it the US-centered interests that are at play? Meaning the inability of al Qaeda under Bin laden and Zawahiri to strike at America or target American troops and presence overseas, including in Iraq?


Is it Bin laden’s discredit, al-Qaeda’s weakening or Jihadism’s defeat that is the broadest strategic goal to attain? Even farther in questioning, is it al Qaeda’Takfiri method or it the global Jihadist ideology that is receding? The matter is not that simple, as one can conclude. So how can we measure an al Qaeda defeat in the middle of a War still raging around the world? I propose the following parameters.


Is al Qaeda being defeated strategically worldwide as stated by the CIA Director?  


First the confrontation is still ongoing. Hence we need to situate the conflict first. Are we comparable with WWII before Normandy or after? In this War on Terror terms, what are our intentions? Is the US-led campaign designed to go after the membership of al Qaeda, go after its ideology or to support democracy movements to finish the job?  Everything depends on the answers.


Geopolitically and at this stage, al Qaeda has been contained in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in Somalia. But al Qaeda has potential, through allies, to thrust through Pakistan and the entire sub Sahara plateau. It was contained in Saudi Arabia but its cells (and off shoots) are omnipresent in Western Europe, Latin America, Indonesia, the Balkans, Russia and India, let alone North America. Objectively one would admit that the organization is being pushed back in some spots but is still gaining ground in other locations. Although geopolitical results are crucial, a final blow against al Qaeda has to be mainly ideological. 


How can we measure al Qaeda’s defeat in Iraq, if that is true? 


There are three ways to measure defeat or victory:  Operational, Control and Recruitment. First, is al Qaeda waging the same number of operations? Second, does it control enclaves? Third, is it recruiting high numbers? By these parameters al Qaeda was certainly “contained” in Iraq, particularly in the Sunni triangle. This was a combined result of the US surge operations and of a rise by local tribes, backed by American military and funding. But this scoring against al Qaeda would diminish and probably collapse if the US quit Iraq abruptly, or without leaving a strong ally behind. So, technically it is a conditioned containment of al Qaeda in Iraq. 


How about Saudi Arabia?


The Saudis have contained many of al Qaeda’s active cells in the Kingdom. But authorities haven’t shrunk the ideological pool from which al Qaeda recruits, i.e. the hard core Wahabi circles. The regime has been using its own clerics to isolate the more radical indoctrination chains. It has been successful in creating a new status quo, but just that. If Iraq crumbles, that is if an abrupt withdrawal takes place in the absence of a strong and democratic Iraqi Government, al Qaeda will surge in the Triangle and thus will begin to impact Saudi Arabia. Therefore the current containment in the Kingdom is hinging on the success of the US led efforts in Iraq, not on inherent ideological efforts in Saudi Arabia.   


How about Pakistan-Afghanistan?


In Afghanistan, both the Taliban and al Qaeda weren’t able to create exclusive zones of control despite their frequent Terror attacks for the last seven years. But there again, the support to operations inside Afghanistan is coming mainly from the Jihadi enclaves inside Pakistan: Which conditions the victory over al Qaeda by the Kabul Government to the defeat of the combat Jihadi forces within the borders of Pakistan by Islamabad’s authorities. Do we expect President Musharref and his cabinet to wage a massive campaign soon into Waziristan and beyond? Unlikely for the moment believe most experts. Hence, the containment of al Qaeda in Afghanistan is hinging on the Pakistan’s politics. While it is true that the Bin Laden initial leadership network has been depleted, the movement continues to survive, fed by an unchallenged ideology, so far.


The war of ideas: Is al Qaeda losing it?


Geopolitically, al Qaeda is contained on the main battlefields in Iraq, Afghanistan and somewhat in Somalia. It is suppressed in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. But it is roaming freely in many other spots. It is not winning in face of the Western world’s premier military machine, but it is still breathing, and more importantly it is making babies. All what it would take to see it leaping back in all battlefields and more is a powerful change of direction in Washington D.C:


As simple as that: if the United States decides to end the War on Terror. or as its bureaucracy has been inclined to do lately, end the War of Ideas against Jihadism, the hydra will rise again and change the course of the conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Arabia and the African Sahara. All depends on how Americans and other democracies are going to wage their campaign against al Qaeda’s ideology. If they choose to ignore it and embark on a fantasy trip to nowhere, as the “Lexicon” business shows, al Qaeda — or its successors — will win eventually.


But if the next Administration would focus on a real ideological defeat of Bin Laden’s movement, then, the advances made on the battlefields will hold firmly and expand.


Lately, some in the counter terrorism community are postulating that Bin Laden is being criticized by his own supporters, or more precisely by ideologues and Jihadists who backed him in the past, then turned against him lately. These analysts offer striking writings by Salafist cadres against the leadership of Bin laden and his associates as evidence of an al Qaeda going into decline. Would these facts mean that the once unchallenged Bin Laden is now losing altitude? Technically yes, Usama is being criticized by Jihadists. But does that mean that we in liberal democracies are winning that war of ideas? Less likely.


A thorough review of the substance of what the Jihadi critics are complaining about (a subject I intend to address in a future article), is not exactly what the free world would be looking forward to. But in short, al Qaeda is now contained in the very battlefield it chose to fend off the Infidels in: Iraq. But this is just one moment in space and time, during which we will have to fight hard to keep the situation as is. Our favorable situation is a product of the US military surge and of a massive investment in dollars. It is up to this Congress, and probably to the next President to maintain that moment, weaken it or expand it.


Al Qaeda and the Iranian regime know exactly the essence of this strategic equation. I am not sure, though, that a majority of Americans are aware of the gravity of the situation. In other words, the public is told that we have won this round against al Qaeda but it should be informed of what it would take to reach final victory in this global conflict.