The Search for al-Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future

  • Published

The Search for al-Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future by Bruce Riedel. Brookings Institution Press, 2008, 180 pp.

The Search for al-Qaeda has a potentially misleading title; it will disappoint any reader expecting a chronicle of the physical search for al-Qaeda members and their bases of operation. The subtitle, Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future, provides a more apt summary of the content. In this concise and compelling volume, author and former CIA agent Bruce Riedel focuses on the prominent minds, ideas, and plans of al-Qaeda to remedy what he perceives as one of America’s most significant shortcomings in the war on terror: the failure to know the enemy. In Riedel’s own words, “This . . . is a book about the development of al Qaeda’s ideology as reflected in the statements of its senior leadership since 9/11.” The length, language, and organization of The Search for al-Qaeda provide a glimpse into the mind-set of a widely misunderstood and misrepresented enemy.

The opening chapter presents a concise and candid summary of events surrounding the 9/11 attacks (or “the Manhattan Raid,” as it is known by al- Qaeda). Though Riedel worked for the Bush administration, at the time of the attacks directly reporting to then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, he is highly critical of the administration’s response, a theme that immediately emerges in the first chapter and continues throughout the book. He critiques the administration for poorly scoping the war (focusing on terrorism in general instead of al-Qaeda in particular), fostering misperceptions (that Saddam was connected to the 9/11 attacks), and mischaracterizing the enemy’s motivations (insisting that al-Qaeda primarily hated the United States for its freedoms rather than for its foreign policy). The second half of the opening chapter is spent previewing the structure and points found in the remainder of the book.

Continuing in the same style of unflinching analysis, the next four chapters each focus on the life and mind-set of the four significant players in the movement: thinker Ayman Zawahiri, knight Osama Bin Laden, host Mullah Omar, and stranger Abu Masaib Zarqawi. Riedel’s analysis in these sections is not always from the perspective of a bystander and observer. In several cases, he possessed an active role in the incidents about which he writes, including his participation in an investigation of the 1996 Khobar barracks bombings, his role in an 1998 attempt on bin Laden’s life, and his mission to negotiate with the Taliban during the Clinton administration. Riedel is not writing from an ivory tower; he writes as a firsthand witness to everything from the carnage of terrorism to the failures of both diplomacy and military action to combat extremist violence.

Building on these foundational chapters (the introduction and the four al-Qaeda portraits), Riedel closes the book with two chapters: one chapter detailing al-Qaeda’s strategy and another plainly titled, How to Defeat al-Qaeda. Riedel depicts al-Qaeda’s plan for building an Islamic caliphate as a blend of bleeding wars, the establishment of safe havens, the spread of al-Qaeda franchises, and major attacks like those accomplished in New York City, London, and Madrid. He recommends responding to al-Qaeda’s plan by countering the al-Qaeda narrative (with the Isreal/Palestine issue at its heart), by enhanced US commitment to Afghanistan (to include a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan), and by extending this renewed attention into Pakistan.

None of this is exactly new territory for foreign policy authors, and many tomes have already covered similar points in greater depth over the years since 9/11, but what makes this book required reading for those involved or simply interested in foreign policy is that its words come from Bruce Riedel. Certainly his credentials are impressive: 29 years at the CIA, service on the National Security Council during the time of the 9/11 attacks, and presently a senior fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institution. Arguably more immediately significant is his role in the current administration. Not only was Riedel a policy advisor to Barack Obama during the presidential campaign, shortly after his inauguration, President Obama appointed Riedel as chair of a review (completed in March 2009) to overhaul US policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. On the subject of al-Qaeda then, Riedel is an author who has the ear of the commander in chief. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Riedel’s analysis, his short and timely read is a valuable glimpse into the past and potential future of al-Qaeda.

Maj Benjamin D. Forest, USAF

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."