War of Ideas

11.09.14 1:20 PM ET

Why’s Al Qaeda So Strong? Washington Has (Literally) No idea

In the years since Bin Laden declared war on the West, we’ve learned how to kill his followers, but not how to defeat his ideology.

It’s been more than 16 years since Al Qaeda declared war on America and it's allies, civilians as well as military, whenever and wherever they could be found. Terror, said Osama bin Laden, was a “moral duty” against “Crusaders” like the Americans, and the Jews, and what he decreed to be their Muslim collaborators. The young people who answered the call of al Qaeda, he said, would be like knights of old under the Prophet Mohammed’s banner.

That was well before 9/11. From the beginning, al Qaeda was building its plans for war on a foundation of ideas, and today its spin-offs like the self-declared Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are following much the same script.

After many long years of open combat, intelligence operations and police work, the West is in fact better protected than ever against major terrorist attacks. But it continues to fail in the ideological war against Al-Qaedaism. And there is little, given the current political climate in the United States, to suggest Washington will come up with any bold or compelling answers on that front. The spectacle of American politicians at each other’s throats about how to deal with al Qaeda or Islamic State plays right into the hands of terrorist strategists.

Since 2001, the top national security priority of the United States has been countering violent extremist Islamic terror that threatens our regional interests in the Islamic world and, most importantly, threatens American cities. Six U.S. cities, at least, are known to have been targeted by al Qaeda and al Qaeda-inspired groups: Los Angeles, New York (repeatedly), Washington, Detroit, Chicago and Boston. Other Western cities have been attacked as well, including Madrid, London, Brussels and Ottawa. More attempted terrorist atrocities are only a matter of time.

So, how are we doing in this 16-year-old war?

To prevent further attacks we have vastly improved our defenses at home. That's been a success story. Complex operations like 9/11 or Madrid that take months or years to develop are unlikely to slip through our intelligence collection effort today—they are not impossible, but they are unlikely. More probable are smaller attacks like the Boston marathon bombing.

We have also tried to prevent the creation of terrorist sanctuaries abroad where plots can be planned or inspired. That's not working well: today al Qaeda or it's offspring like Islamic State, widely known as ISIS or ISIL, have bases in Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Libya and another one is emerging in Egypt. Afghanistan may be next, once NATO leaves in 2016.

And, yes, we have tried to counter the extremists’ ideology, but only very weakly.

At the core of al Qaeda's narrative is the message that Islam is under siege by a 'Zionist Crusader' conspiracy. Osama bin Laden, Ayman Zawahiri and Abu Musab al Zarqawi, founding fathers of today's threat, all pointed to Israel as the premier example of the danger America allegedly poses to Islam. It has always given them their favorite recruiting tools. The three Gaza wars have been used by al Qaeda to galvanize anti -American hatred. On this front we are not just losing the battle of narratives, we are barely engaged in it.

To counter that narrative the United States and the international community argue in favor of a two-state solution and a just peace for both Israel and Palestine. That won't change al Qaeda's goal, which is Israel's destruction, but would severely undermine its appeal and over time dry up its base. The two-state solution, if implemented, fundamentally discredits the whole concept of a conspiracy against Islam.

Unfortunately, for six years the Obama team has tried to push the two-state solution without any success. It rightly blames both Israeli and Palestinian intransigence for its failure. But the core issue is Israel's refusal to end the occupation of the West Bank. There the problem is that the goal of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu's team is to perpetuate the occupation, not to end it. They want a larger Israeli footprint in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Bibi's grudging support for a two-state solution is rhetorical at best; much of the Israeli right does not even pretend to support a Palestinian state. The increasing tension between Obama's team and Bibi's reflects this basic divergence in interests. It will get worse. Rising tensions in Jerusalem will spur jihadist recruitment.

The Syrian conflict, meanwhile, holds a special ideological allure for the extremists because it is on the doorstep of Israel and Jerusalem. Under the self-declared Islamic State caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the war has attracted thousands of foreign fighters in a fight against all who fail to follow their interpretation of Sunni Islam. That includes savage Alawite-controlled regime of Bashar Assad, but also Christians, Yazidis or fellow Sunnis who dare to oppose al Baghdadi’s diktats. Among those foreign fighters in Syria are many potential recruits for terror in the West. Indeed, the old al Qaeda leadership created a cell inside the Nusra Front group for just that purpose, and this so-called Khorasan group is a very dangerous threat.

The extremists’ narrative argues that only violent jihad can bring about change and justice in the Islamic world. They argue the Arab spring proves that peaceful protests and demonstrations, elections and democratic change don't work in Arabia and the world of Islam. The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt is cited as evidence that “moderate” Islam is too weak to fight the Zionist-Crusader conspiracy and it's Quisling allies like Saudi Arabia and the Egyptian army.

Washington and other Western capitals recognize that their old goal of promoting stability in the Islamic world at any price is illusory. The police state system that propped up dictators from Algiers to Islamabad for decades was unsustainable. Trying to put it back together again, as the Saudis and other counter-revolutionaries would like, is a fool’s errand. It may buy time but it won't work. The Arab spring failed, but it demonstrated the ancient regimes are doomed unless they change profoundly, which is very unlikely.

Chaos and failed states, not democracy, are what the foreseeable future holds for Arabia. But a Western policy that is blind to the urgent need for reform and justice is certain to end in catastrophe. More immediately, it cedes the ideological battle to al Qaeda's simple solution that only jihad brings change. Close attachment to autocratic regimes by the West pays short-term dividends but will antagonize generations of Muslims.

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The extremist message also encourages sectarianism and intolerance. The Shia are portrayed as false Muslims and brutally attacked to encourage Sunni-Shia hatred. Sectarian strife now empowers the civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and Al Qaedaism flourishes in the chaos. The West says far too little about the cancer of sectarianism.

Fortunately, the extremist movement itself is increasingly divided and diffuse. Al Qaeda and its Iraqi offspring ISIS compete for recruits and territory. Caliph Ibrahim, aka Abu Bakr Al Hashemi Al Qurayshi Al Baghdadi, challenges Ayman Zawahiri for the title of the real successor to Bin Laden. The various jihadist groups give different levels of priority to mounting attacks on western cities.

The defeat of Islamic extremism requires both hard and soft power responses. Drones need be matched with deeds that expose the false precepts of Al Qaeda's narrative. Today the hard power part of our war effort is stretched across Africa and Asia. And the soft-power part of the strategy? That appears, at best, to be feeble, at worst to have atrophied altogether.