Can Al-Qaeda Be Killed?

Andrew Belonsky :: Thursday, June 3rd, 2010 10:30 am

The assassination of Al-Qaeda leader Mustafa Abu al-Yazid this week has people wondering if the terrorist organization, long the world’s collective super villain, will soon be a thing of the past. Good thing I’ve been researching that very question for a little over a month. The short answer is, “Yes, probably.” The long answer is: “Not on your life.”

President Obama and his State Department have an explicit goal when it comes to Al-Qaeda, one that’s repeated like a mantra, “Disrupt, Dismantle and Defeat.” It sounds a bit lofty, yes, but almost all experts concur that Al-Qaeda can, in theory, be eliminated. James Brandon from The Quilliam Foundation, an NGO founded by two former members of the extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, remarked, “It’s possible to eliminate Al-Qaeda through capturing or arresting its key leaders and organizers.” He also noted that members could be lured away from terror groups by being offered alternate methods.

Charles Kurzman, author of the forthcoming book The Missing Martyrs, Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists, told me, “Of course Al-Qaeda can be killed. Few organizations last forever. Fortunately, Al-Qaeda and most similar organizations are tiny groups and have difficulty replacing their dead or detained with new recruits.” Great! So, that’s that: Al-Qaeda can, and will, be killed, and the world will be safe from its terrorist scourge. Not quite.

Just as quickly as people claim Al-Qaeda could be defeated, they add a caveat. Brandon argues, “Defeating the Al-Qaeda ideology – the idea that Muslims are justified in carrying out terrorist attacks to establish an ‘Islamic state’ or to ‘punish’ the West, is likely to prove far more difficult.” He continued, “You could compare Al-Qaeda to communism: being a communist doesn’t necessarily mean belonging to a Communist party; it just means holding Communist beliefs.”

Meanwhile, Matt Levitt from The Washington Institute tells me, “Al-Qaeda is harder to defeat than most, because it’s a movement, rather than just an organization.” Founded in 1988, Al-Qaeda is this generation of terrorism’s patriarch. It’s the vanguard, and has inspired like-minded, geographically diverse groups and lone wolves the world over, some of which have even adopted the Qaeda moniker, like Yemen Al-Qaeda. And it’s these groups that pose the most terrifying threat.

In a report delivered to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2009, Foreign Policy Research Institute senior fellow Marc Sageman pointed out that Al-Qaeda-inspired organizations are responsible for more deadly attacks than Osama bin Laden’s gang. “[Al-Qaeda] managed only two successful plots in the West in the last twenty years! The fact that they were so deadly overshadows this truth. Indeed, successful independent plots outnumber successful Al-Qaeda plots in the West.” The affiliated Algerian Groupes Islamiques Armes scored the most hits: 9 of the 14 successful hits in the West since 1993. And that’s precisely why the world needs to rethink its conventional strategies to take down this unconventional foe.

Most official groups, like the United Nations, focus on traditional tactics to curtail terror, such as bolstering member states’ security apparatus and enforcing the criminalization of terrorism. Criminalization can indeed have a positive impact, says Levitt, “Criminal court goes a long way in knocking terrorists down from their religious pedestal.” Criminalization also hinders the recruitment process, which obviously limits a terror group’s ability to lash out. But there are negative effects, too.

“From the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 1950s to al-Qaeda in Jordan in the 1990s, Islamist individuals have used their time in prisons to radicalize and recruit followers and to refine and revise their ideologies,” Brandon writes in his report, Unlocking Al-Qaeda: Islamist Extremism in British Prisons. More than that, criminalization can also add to the bandit-like allure of Al-Qaeda, which seduces young men into blood-soaked adventure.

Asked about theories that criminalization helps terror, Mike Smith from the UN’s counter terrorism arm replied, “I agree that ‘mystification’ or giving glamour to terrorists is a problem, but I think there are factors that play much more heavily into that than just criminalization: videos of terror attacks and appeals for support on jihadist websites are a much more serious concern.” The seduction of violent radicalism must then be tackled from a range of angles.

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