If you wonder what has happened to al-Qaida, follow the trail of Arab and Muslim public opinion, and you’ll get a clear picture of its massive crisis of authority and legitimacy.
The balance of forces in the world of Islam has shifted dramatically against al-Qaida’s global jihad and its local manifestations.
Now, more and more Muslims view al-Qaida through a prism that focuses on the monstrosity of killing of non-combatants in general, not just Muslim civilians. Recent opinion surveys and my own field-research confirm that an overwhelming majority of Muslims are more than just unsympathetic to the ideology of Osama bin Laden and his followers; they place the blame squarely at his feet for the harm he has caused to the image of Islam and the damage his movement has wrought within Muslim societies.
Despite their constant incitement and pleading, bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahari, face a serious shortage of skilled recruits in the Arab heartland. This is another by-product of their deepening crisis of authority and legitimacy. The new trend speaks volumes about the moral discrediting of al-Qaida in the eyes of Muslims and the failure of the global jihad in general.
A global trend
The evidence of recent public surveys and opinion-polls is revealing of these trends. Here are six examples:
* Gallup conducted tens of thousands of hour-long, face-to-face interviews with residents of more than thirty-five predominantly Muslim countries between 2001 and 2007. It found that – contrary to the prevailing perception in the west that the actions of al-Qaida enjoy wide support in the Muslim world – more than 90% of respondents condemned the killing of non-combatants on religious and humanitarian grounds
* The not-for-profit group Terror Free Tomorrow carried out a public-opinion survey seeking to establish why people support or oppose extremism; it found that fewer than 10% of Saudis had a favourable opinion of al-Qaida, and 88% approved of the Saudi authorities pursuing al-Qaida operatives
* In Pakistan, despite the recent rise in the Taliban’s influence, surveys of public opinion do not bode well for al-Qaida and its allies. A poll conducted by Terror Free Tomorrow in Pakistan in January 2008 tested support for al-Qaida, the Taliban, other militant Islamist groups and Osama bin Laden himself, and found a recent drop by half. In August 2007, 33% of Pakistanis expressed support for al-Qaida; 38% supported the Taliban. By January 2008, al-Qaida’s support had dropped to 18%, the Taliban’s to 19%. When asked if they would vote for al-Qaida, just 1% of Pakistanis polled answered in the affirmative. The Taliban had the support of 3% of those polled
* Pew surveys in 2008 show that in a range of countries – Jordan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Lebanon, and Bangladesh – there have been substantial declines in the percentages saying suicide-bombings and other forms of violence against civilian targets can be justified to defend Islam against its enemies. Wide majorities say such attacks are, at most, rarely acceptable
The shift has been especially dramatic in Jordan, where 29% of Jordanians are recorded as viewing suicide-attacks as often or sometimes justified (down from 57% in May 2005). In the largest majority-Muslim nation, Indonesia, 74% of respondents agree that terrorist attacks are “never justified” (a substantial decline from the 41% level to which support had risen in March 2004); in Pakistan, that figure is 86%; in Bangladesh, 81%; and in Iran, 80%
(These figures may be compared with a recent study that shows only 46% of Americans think that “bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are “never justified”, while 24% believe these attacks are “often or sometimes justified”)
* A poll conducted in Osama bin Laden’s home country of Saudi Arabia in December 2008 shows that his compatriots have dramatically turned against him, his organisation, Saudi volunteers in Iraq, and terrorism in general. Indeed, confidence in bin Laden has fallen in most Muslim countries in recent years.
* In Iraq, people of all persuasions unanimously reject the terror tactics of “al-Qaida in Mesopotamia”. An ABC News/BBC/NHK poll revealed that all of those surveyed – Sunni and Shi’a alike – found al-Qaida attacks on Iraqi civilians “unacceptable”; 98% rejected the militants’ attempts to gain control over areas in which they operated; and 97% opposed their attempts to recruit foreign fighters and bring them to Iraq.
A static voice
Both the loss of public support for al-Qaida’s wholesale attacks on civilians and the theological critiques of Osama bin Laden’s organisation by prominent clerics and former radical cohorts appear to have inflicted major damage on al-Qaida’s capacity to operate. The result has been to exacerbate bin Laden’s crisis of legitimacy and authority, and handicapped his efforts to sustain the war against the United States and its western and middle-eastern allies.
I have met former jihadis and Islamists in many countries (in Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Yemen, the Persian Gulf, Britain, France, Germany, and Spain) who tell me that al-Qaida’s gruesome attacks on civilians, particularly in Muslim countries – and the mayhem these wrought – have relegated al-Qaida to the margins of Islamic society, with few allies and insecure sanctuaries. The social and political space that once provided refuge for al-Qaida and its affiliates has shrunk almost to nothing; Sunni Muslims are in the forefront of hunting down such groups in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon, Palestine, and elsewhere.
Al-Qaida does appear to have strengthened its foothold along Pakistan’s tribal border with Afghanistan thanks to its connection with the Taliban in both countries; but it faces insurmountable challenges elsewhere. Al-Qaida’s appeal has faded in Indonesia with the demise of the loose affiliate of al-Qaida known as Jemaah Islamiyya. The situation in its historic arena of support – the Arab hinterland – is equally grave; since 2006, Arab opinion has increasingly seen al-Qaida as a movement that promises heaven but delivers death and dust, and in consequence turned against it.
Indeed, since May 2003 the majority of bin Laden’s men (numbering hundreds) in Saudi Arabia – as the leader’s birthplace and the religious centre of Islam a pivotal country – have been killed or arrested; this decimated the al-Qaida network and seriously damaged al-Qaida’s chances of using Saudi Arabia as a power-base.
The loss of Muslim public support has direct consequences on al-Qaida’s reach and operational capabilities. It means fewer recruits, fewer shelters, and fewer opportunities to strike at enemies. Indeed, the mainstream of Muslim opinion emerges as the most powerful weapon in the fight against al-Qaida (as well as other terror groups).
During Israel’s assault on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009, bin Laden sought to harness anger in the region by urging Muslims to rise up. He vowed that his organisation would open “new fronts” against the United States and its partners beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, many Palestinians and Arabs dismissed his call as more harmful to the Palestinian cause and beneficial to their adversaries.
The evidence suggests that bin Laden and al-Zawahari have been reduced to a static voice and image on television screens and radios. That is not a very effective means of waging a global jihad against the US and its partners.
There is a larger pattern here. The historical experience is that terror groups which alienate their core support-base eventually wither – even if elements of the terrorists themselves remained undefeated. The post-second-world-war history of ultra-leftist terrorism in Europe is a classic case in point. The neo-Marxist political agendas of these small middle-class groups – the Rote Armee Fraktion in Germany, the Brigate Rosse in Italy, Action Directe in France, and others – had hardly any appeal for the citizens that the radicals hoped to mobilise.
Similarly, the failure of the Islamist armed insurgency against the Egyptian and Algerian regimes in the 1980s and 1990s was owed less to state repression than to the fact that public opinion got fed up with the violence and instability caused by the militants. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s memoirs published immediately after 11 September 2001 – Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner – acknowledged that fact and advised his cohorts to labour hard to win Muslim hearts and minds. He and his emir, Osama bin Laden, seem to have ignored this very lesson.
A darker view
The argument in the first part of this article is that al-Qaida has been morally discredited in the world of Islam and faces a massive crisis of authority and legitimacy. This has left the Osama bin Laden group internally and externally besieged. In this second part I consider the argument of many analysts of terrorism who dispute this analysis, questioning or belittling the claim of a debilitating legitimacy crisis and of the substantial erosion of Muslim support for the group. These terrorism experts claim that al-Qaida is ascending, as dangerous as ever, and who see the global jihad as a success story.