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The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda

The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda by Fawaz A. Gerges. Oxford University Press, 2011, 259 pp.

Fawaz Gerges, a leading scholar of social movements and renowned regional expert on the Middle East, has established a unique reputation as a scholar in his unparalleled access to actors in the region who have been pivotal in influencing the historical jihadist movement and developing its foundational theories. Gerges’s Journey of the Jihadist chronicled the movement over a span of three generations, illuminating the differences between intergenerational elites and the evolving focus of the movement. That work was particularly instructive in explaining the shortcomings of the US war in Iraq and against al-Qaeda in attaining its stated strategic goals and served as a corrective to some of the excesses and misconceptions of the “war on terrorism” as defined by US national strategy.

Gerges’ keen insight is reflected anew by his understanding and discussion of the diversity within the jihadist movement, a theme that forms the centerpiece of his latest book, The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda. He explores the important rift among the jihadists that burgeoned during Osama bin Laden’s reign over al-Qaeda. Gerges develops the central theme that from its inception al-Qaeda has been viewed by prominent Islamic thinkers and elites within and outside the movement as too extremist and/or unreflective of true Islam. One prominent jihadist, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif Fadl, proclaimed in 2007 that “Al-Qaeda committed suicide on 9/11,” that bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were “false prophets,” and that al-Qaeda was “an empty shell which lacks a popular base of support and a religiously sanctioned mandate” (pp. 121–22). The schism within the movement meant that al-Qaeda’s ability to sway the Islamic world was tenuous from the start and collapsing by the end of the millennium.

Gerges argues that al-Qaeda’s excesses in Iraq, including the violence and dogmatism of its members and affiliates, were especially harmful to the movement in deepening its negative image among Islamic elites and throughout the Islamic world. Al-Qaeda’s killing of innocent Muslims in Iraq alongside potential enemies of Islam produced revulsion among many Muslims and detracted from any perceived legitimate grievance that may have been expressed concerning Western and/or US imperialism. Gerges carefully traces and explains the collapse of support for al-Qaeda among Muslims throughout the Islamic world. By the time of bin Laden’s death, reliable public opinion polls and Gerges’ own interviews revealed that al-Qaeda as an organization and movement was already in deep crisis. From Saudi Arabia to Iraq, to Pakistan, to Indonesia and Turkey, confidence in bin Laden had plummeted from earlier levels of support. Gerges concludes that “overwhelming evidence” suggests that “the original menace of al-Qaeda is winding down” (p. 189).

The two areas where al-Qaeda remains a factor are in Yemen and along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Gerges argues that the influence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) will be decided by its usefulness to the tribes that predominate in Yemen. The tribes will ally with AQAP for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons in contesting the unpopular national government. In keeping with past prescriptions, Gerges advises US policymakers against applying only military force to counter AQAP, as such a strategy could backfire and actually enhance the organization’s popular support. He analyzes the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan as one in which “The current marriage of convenience between the Taliban fighters and al-Qaeda will hold as long as the West confuses and conflates them, and wages all-out war against them” (p. 183). In noting approvingly a shift in the Obama administration’s approach in Afghanistan to one that emphasizes reconciliation between the Taliban and the national government, Gerges reiterates one of his key points: “there is no military solution to the civil strife in Afghanistan” (p. 187)

Gerges concludes by critically commenting on the disjuncture between the reality of al-Qaeda’s mortal weakening and the continued inclination of US counterterrorism experts and the US government to emphasize al-Qaeda “as a strategic, existential threat” (p. 192). Gerges elaborates on the theme that both American elites and the public have become captive to the fear of terrorism, which then amplifies any piece of evidence into confirming the narrative. Thus, the reality of al-Qaeda’s operational, organizational, and popular decline has not yet diminished the perception of existential threat that has become habituated across the American elite and public, much as Cold War thinking did previously. Gerges prescribes that the United States step out from behind the approach it has taken in the Middle East that has emphasized counterterrorism and stability and unleash the liberal democratic universalistic impulses that would enable it to play a constructive role in the democratic movements that have erupted across the region. Gerges asserts that “The United States can help transform the Middle East” (p. 205). This captures the greater strategic vision he presents through his deep analysis of al-Qaeda and its shortcomings. In the end, such movements feed off the effects of authoritarianism, tyranny, and oppression. The resultant “absence of hope” provides “the fuel that powers radical, absolutist ideologies in the Muslim world; they are the mother of all ailments that afflict the region, including al-Qaeda, a parasite that feeds on political and social turmoil and repression” (p. 213). The beacon of hope and light the United States has historically professed to represent in the world should be allowed to glow brightly in its approach to the Middle East and help redirect national strategy and policy toward this mission; it would redefine US-Israeli relations as well as the ability of the United States to influence the direction of social and political movements in the greater Middle East.

The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda challenges the reader to acknowledge and understand the diversity that has existed within the jihadist movement and to realize that bin Laden and al-Qaeda never represented majority Muslim or even Islamist opinion. His deep understanding of Islamic thinkers and activists enables him to elaborate and chronicle the path al-Qaeda and its leadership traversed that ended with bin Laden’s failure and death. Gerges’ expertise in social movements also enables him to address the strategic environment of change in the Middle East with clarity and underwrites the prescriptions he offers for changing the discourse and direction of US policy in the region. This book will be seen as provocative by some and should be read by regional analysts of the Middle East, academics interested in social movements, policymakers, and those interested in Middle East politics and the threat of terrorism.

Dr. Mary N. Hampton

Air Command and Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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