The revived discussion about the resurgent strengths of Al-Qaeda and its associates continues to be wrongly framed around two narratives: Is Al-Qaeda becoming stronger and posing serious new threats around the world, and, has the American-led “global war on terror” achieved its aims or not? These are useless questions because, first, they mistakenly view Al-Qaeda as an organization that, like a country or a corporation, has its strong and weak moments in interacting with the world; and second, they stress the secondary issue of Al-Qaeda’s threat to the United States and the West, when the most important thing about the Al-Qaeda phenomenon is what it tells us about the slow unraveling of once coherent societies, mostly in the Middle East and South Asia.
As the United States shut 19 diplomatic missions, evacuated others, told its nationals not to travel anywhere for a while, and launched a series of drone assassinations against targets in Yemen, what should we have concluded about the dramatic American reaction to alleged Al-Qaeda threats in the past week? And is there a better way to analyze and respond to the threats that Al-Qaeda represents?
On the first issue, I would say American officials continue to hysterically over-react to the surface manifestations of Al-Qaeda, both by using extra-legal military force to kill suspected terrorists and shutting down operations when they suspect an operation is at hand. This repeats the same mistake that others made in the wars against crime or drugs – locking up criminals, drug dealers and users as a failed means to deter others in these realms. These approaches consistently fail because they ignore the huge incentives for those who engage in crime and deal in drugs, as well as the powerful motivating forces that drive lost individuals into these activities.
The U.S. and other governments must fight back against Al-Qaeda and other terrorists, but current trends suggest that the approach now being used is a massive flop. Trillions of dollars have been spent and wasted in wars, armaments, training and other actions since Sept. 11, 2001, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded and the millions of refugees that can be attributed to the consequences of anti-terror strategies spearheaded by the U.S. and allies. So now in August 2013 Al-Qaeda still frightens governments, and many associated groups that mirror its worldview and tactics continue to spring up in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Mali, Niger, Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other shattered lands.
So who shattered these lands? We can answer that by analyzing how and why Al-Qaeda’s message, alliances, associates and tactics continue to spread in isolated places around the world. And to do that we should disaggregate the relevant elements or actors and address each one appropriately. The key elements and actors are the mother group Al-Qaeda itself; its many associates and affiliates around the world, in their local enabling environments; the thousands of individuals who join such groups, mostly unanchored losers and nutcases who desperately need a militant cause to give meaning to their lives (similar to the equally small numbers of Christian and Jewish nutcases who gravitate to extremist groups that deal in other sorts of crime in other societies); the conduct of governments in Arab, Asian and African countries where these terror groups come to life; and foreign governments (such as those in the U.S., Israel, the U.K., and Russia, and formerly the Soviet Union) whose policies provide an opportunity for Al-Qaeda to attract an apparently endless stream of new recruits prepared to kill and die for their causes.
The really shocking recent development is not Al-Qaeda’s alleged plans to attack foreign missions this week – that is old news – but rather the steady expansion of Al-Qaeda-inspired or – linked local groups in the past decade all across the Arab-Asian region. This robust global growth in deviant and criminal behavior primarily reflects the last two reasons I mentioned earlier: corrupt, dictatorial, inequitable and dehumanizing policies by indigenous governments, combined with aggressive and deadly policies by foreign governments that mostly treat the peoples of these regions with disdain.
The motivating forces for the continued expansion of local Al-Qaeda-like groups have changed radically since the seminal Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, followed by the deployment of American troops in Saudi Arabia, Israeli aggressions against Arabs, the actions of corrupt and uncaring Arab regimes, and others. The reasons why young men join such movements evolve and expand every few years, and now include virulent anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian racism. But the young men keep coming, in larger and larger numbers, and the Arab and foreign governments keep up their violence and thuggery.
Closing embassies, supporting Arab and Asian autocrats, invading foreign countries, and using more drones are among the core reasons why we find ourselves in this situation today. Arabs, Americans, Asians, Israelis, Europeans and others who wonder how we will defeat the Al-Qaeda threat should stop asking questions about a bunch of bearded lunatics in perpetual hiding in Asian transborder mountains, and start asking questions about how their own policies in Washington, Tel Aviv, London, Cairo, Riyadh, Damascus and other capitals have contributed to this colossal collective failure of policies.
Al-Qaeda really is a problem, but so are most of the rest of us who helped bring it to life.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.