The nature of al Qaeda

Earlier this year a good old-fashioned intellectual brawl erupted in the world of terrorism studies over whether al Qaeda is still a coherent top-down organization with the ability to direct and carry out attacks on its own, or whether it has fragmented and now serves mainly as a source of inspiration for grassroots freelancers.

The battle was fought mainly by Bruce Hoffman, a professor at Georgetown University, who took the former position, and Marc Sageman, a psychiatrist, university lecturer, and ex-CIA case officer, who laid out his argument for a “leaderless jihad” in his book of the same name.

This corner sides with Hoffman. The simple fact that so many of the terrorist attacks and foiled plots directed against the West since 9/11, especially in Britain, have roots that trace back to the tribal areas of Pakistan strongly suggests that al Qaeda’s base remains strong. Readers can make up their own minds, though. Sageman’s book can be bought here, and Hoffman’s critique can be read here.

Now Bruce Riedel, also ex-CIA and an advisor to three American presidents, has waded into the debate with a short but rich book on al Qaeda’s goals and prospects. Riedel is also said to be advising U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, so for anyone looking for clues as to how Obama will approach the Middle East and confronting terrorism, Riedel’s book isn’t a bad place to start.

Riedel argues that al Qaeda’s plans are to trap Western forces in “bleeding wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq: to build and consolidate a safe haven in Pakistan and Afghanistan which will eventually form the core of an Islamist caliphate; and to create “franchises” elsewhere in the world from which to strike at the West and at apostate regimes in the Muslim world. The ultimate goal is the destruction of Israel. Some of these goals have already been accomplished. Maclean’s has reported on al Qaeda’s efforts to establish franchises in North Africa and Lebanon. It’s franchises in Iraq and Saudi Arabia have suffered setbacks of late but are far from defeated. Fortunately, despite some reports of low-level cooperation with Hamas, it remains largely shut out of Palestine.

Riedel offers no easy solutions for how to defeat al Qaeda, but he does put the threat in perspective. Al Qaeda is not Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, and it should not take generations to defeat. The struggle will still be a long and difficult one, though. Like Obama, Riedel believes the United States should get out of Iraq and refocus its efforts on Afghanistan — the nexus of the battle against al Qaeda, and the country Stephen Harper has pledged to abandon militarily in three years.

Sageman’s book can be bought here, and Hoffman’s critique can be read here

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