Al-Qaeda and the NSS
Posted by Michael Wahid Hanna
My colleagues here have discussed many of the overarching themes of the National Security Strategy at length, but I am going to focus on one small portion of the document. I generally have a hard time taking these types of exercises particularly seriously because we kind of already knew what the NSS was going to say. In essence, the NSS seems like a cataloging and recapitulation of themes and arguments that we have heard for years now—first as a critique of the excesses of the Bush administration by then-candidate Obama, and then, more recently, as the operating principles of the administration’s foreign policy. I just don’t find anything particularly revelatory about it, and as a restatement, the NSS does not establish national strategy so much as reflect it, albeit in an aspirational sense.
Be that as it may, I wanted to take a closer look at one very small subsection of the document dealing with how the United States seeks to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” al-Qaeda, namely, by contrasting al-Qaeda’s intent to destroy with our “constructive vision.” First off, I think we overestimate the current efficacy of using our “constructive vision” as a tool for changing minds in the region. The nature of Arab political grievance is deeply entrenched, and the lack of deliverables following President Obama’s Cairo speech has reinforced a robust skepticism of U.S. intentions and capacity. Of course, movement on issues of political salience would be a huge boost to U.S. credibility and would go a long way in blunting the effectiveness of transnational Islamist messaging, but, unfortunately, the prospects for any near-term wins look bleak.
But the broader and more important point is that, in many ways, we do not have to change minds; instead, we need to focus on reinforcing the existing distaste for al-Qaeda’s vision and tactics. This approach recognizes the crucial distinction between the huge appeal of narratives of resistance as propounded by groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and the obscurantist and fringe views that are the bedrock of al-Qaeda’s ideology. This resistance narrative has wide resonance and al-Qaeda goes to great lengths to camouflage many of their far-reaching beliefs by employing popular rhetorical tropes that play upon existing political grievances. But their ideology goes much further and embraces takfiri thought and a promiscuous view of the legitimacy of the slaughter of innocents, who more often than not are, in fact, Muslims. Needless to say, there is not much of a constituency for such ideas. Of course, al-Qaeda does not need huge numbers of recruits, but even small steps to poison the well can be useful.
Many of the positions that these types of salafi jihadis have espoused have crossed into the realm of culture as they have sought to ban smoking, music, and even soccer—positions that are not likely to inspire adherents in the Arab world. Of course the unmitigated savagery of the movement, particularly as it pertains to the deaths of other Muslims, has served to distance the group even further from mainstream discourse. A movement such as the one led by Abu Musa’b al-Zarqawi in Iraq, which formally sought legitimacy from the umbrella of affiliation with al-Qaeda, reached a level of self-destructive nihilist violence that necessitated a stern warning from none other than ‘Ayman al-Zawahri. When al-Zawahri is telling you to dial things down, you probably have taken things a bit far.
Recognizing where al-Qaeda’s vision fits within the broader cultural and political ferment in the region offers a host of opportunities for further driving home the fundamental absurdity of al-Qaeda’s claims, starting with their very effectiveness as an organization. One of the initial reactions to the attacks of September 11 in the Arab world was one of disbelief among many Arabs that an Arab-led group could have undertaken and implemented such a complicated and sophisticated plot. This obviously also speaks to a larger point regarding the deep malaise in the region. Of course, our focusing on the group’s failures and weakness would require a certain degree of stoicism and calm in the face of the still real threats we face from such groups. And, unfortunately, such equanimity has often been lacking in our responses to terrorism and attempted attacks.
The nature of al-Qaeda’s tactics also offers a real opportunity to drive home the group’s extremism, and this is a space that our intelligence agencies should be more aggressive in filling. I recently read a series of stories that outlined various plots aimed at conducting operations at the upcoming World Cup in South Africa. I was happy to see these accounts, even if I have some suspicions regarding the provenance of the stories. But either way, this is a useful development. If the stories are in fact true, then we should take heart in the utter strategic stupidity of al-Qaeda. Having spent many a World Cup summer in Egypt, I can state with great certitude that targeting the World Cup would be about the most alienating action that the group could undertake. The other possibility is that this story was a form of information operations (perhaps devised by the Iraqis) and, if so, it was a solid effort. Al-Qaeda’s actions are often enough, but we should take advantage of how far outside the mainstream these groups actually are. I hope to soon see a story about al-Qaeda’s attempts to outlaw Um Kalthoum or to ban cigarettes—now those would be effective wedges in the Arab world.
I realize this is a rather small point to draw out of a sprawling document, but this subsection of the NSS provided a useful excuse to write about this issue. While I would hope that our collective positive example and our diplomatic efforts could construct a positive narrative about the role of the United States in the world and the region, in light of current political realities in the region, I also don’t see this as the most effective avenue for undermining al-Qaeda. In effect, they are their own worst enemy, and we should be engaged in helping them seal their own fate.