Now that they’re in the game again, let’s ask “who is al Qaeda?”

Summary:  US counterinsurgency experts have declared al Qaeda down for the count many times. Their #3 executive assassinated, repeatedly. Defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet in the 13th year after 9-11 we have been ejected from Iraq, which has burst into flames again. We face almost certain defeat in Afghanistan. Our special operations forces fight shadowy jihadists in dozens of nations. Our strategy of lavish killing, often in support of corrupt tyrants, doesn’t seem to be working. Perhaps we should go back to step one, and learn about the organization that initiated the Long War. Owen Bennett-Jones walks us through two new books helping us do so.

Flag of Jihad
Flag of Jihad

.Bunches of Guys

by Owen Bennett-Jones
Published in the London Review of Books
19 December 2013
Red emphasis added
Reprinted with the permission of the author and LRB.

A review of these books:

  • Decoding al-Qaida’s Strategy: The Deep Battle against America by Michael Ryan
  • The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organisations by Jacob Shapiro

As they fled Afghanistan after 9/11 some of bin Laden’s followers wondered whether the attacks on the US had been a mistake. Among them was one of al-Qaida’s most acerbic writers, Abu Musab al-Suri. In public he backed bin Laden: privately he described him as an obstinate egotist. And he was scathing about the consequences of 9/11: ‘The outcome, as I see it, was to put a catastrophic end to the jihadi current which started in the early 1960s.’ Al-Suri believed that the Afghan Taliban regime, the most religiously correct Islamic emirate in centuries, had been destroyed for the sake of a provocative attack on a country al-Qaida could not defeat.

Before 9/11, the organisation’s training camps had processed a steady stream of highly motivated recruits. After the attacks it was on the run. Another senior al-Qaida figure, Abu al Walid al-Masri, put it even more bluntly. Bin Laden, he said, had led his followers to ‘the abyss’.

A decade later those concerns seemed to have been vindicated. By 2011 al-Qaida had been reduced to a few bands of men hiding in the mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Distracted by the need to evade death or capture they were capable of mounting only puny attacks. Their allies in the Afghan Taliban were a shadow of their former selves: they may have been fighting US forces with increasing vigour, but they were nowhere near conquering Kabul for a second time.

It was much the same story in North Africa, where the local al-Qaida branch, al Shabab, was thrown out of Mogadishu by African Union forces fighting in support of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia. In Saudi Arabia, al-Qaida had suffered an even more devastating reverse. In 2003 the royal family had to be persuaded that al-Qaida was a genuine threat, but once that was done the state was running a concerted and well-resourced security and propaganda campaign. Senior clerics were seen on TV denouncing the organisation.

At the same time, many of al-Qaida’s most capable leaders, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man who put together the 9/11 attack, were languishing in Guantánamo. Those who were still in Pakistan faced drone strikes of such accuracy that they had to be continually on the move and could not risk meeting up for more than a few minutes. The West’s assault on al-Qaida’s finances had left bin Laden, the son of one of the wealthiest families on earth, worrying about money for the first time in his life. Then in May 2011 the US located and killed him.

All of which makes plain how remarkable al-Qaida’s resurgence over the last three years has been.


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About the author of the review

Owen Bennett-Jones is a freelance British journalist and one of the hosts of Newshour on the BBC World Service. See his Wikipedia entry.

For More Information

(a)  Posts about bin Laden:

  1. Important:  Was 9/11 the most effective single military operation in the history of the world?, 11 June 2008
  2. Bin Laden wins by using the “Tactics of Mistake” against America, 6 February 2011
  3. A brief note about the death of bin Laden, 2 May 2011
  4. Important:  About the strategic significance of bin Laden’s execution, and the road not taken, 5 May 2011

(b)  These posts about AQ remain relevant today:

  1. Important:  Lessons Learned from the American Expedition to Iraq, 29 December 2005 — Is al Qaeda like Cobra, SPECTRE, and THRUSH?
  2. The enigma of Al Qaeda. Even in death, these unanswered questions remain important, 15 September 2008
  3. “Strategic Divergence: The War Against the Taliban and the War Against Al Qaeda” by George Friedman, 31 January 2009
  4. Can we defeat our almost imaginary enemies?, 10 December 2009
  5. “The Almanac of Al Qaeda” – about our foe, 16 June 2010
  6. Today’s news about the Af-Pak War, about al Qaeda’s strength, 1 July 2010
  7. Important:  Does al Qaeda still exist?, 31 March 2011
  8. A look at al Qaeda, the long war — and us, 7 August 2013
  9. We cannot defeat al Qaeda unless we understand it. And since we’re told mostly exaggerations and lies…, 12 October 2013

All posts on the FM website about al Qaeda are listed here.

(c)  For more information about our Islamic foes:

  1. ImportantAre islamic extremists like the anarchists?, 14 December 2009
  2. ImportantRAND explains How Terrorist Groups End, and gives Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida, 15 January 2010
  3. Stratfor’s strategic analysis – “Jihadism in 2010: The Threat Continues”, 17 March 2010
  4. Stratfor: “Jihadism: The Grassroots Paradox”, 21 March 2010
  5. Stratfor: Setting the Record Straight on Grassroots Jihadism, 1 May 2010
  6. Hard (and disturbing) information about schools in Pakistan – the madāris , 1 May 2011



5 thoughts on “Now that they’re in the game again, let’s ask “who is al Qaeda?””

  1. Pingback: Now that they’re in the game again, let’s ask “who is al Qaeda?” - Global Dissident

  2. Excellent review by Owen Bennett-Jones. I’ll try to add a couple of additional thoughts.

    1. For those interested, all works cited in these books are provided free in English at USMA’s CTC {Combating Terrorism Center at West Point}. I’d recommend anyone that wants to better understand AQ to spend a day reading through the direct texts and draw your own conclusions. The CTC has been a national treasure for many us fighting in the so-called Long War over the last decade. You might find yourself surprised at how much we might agree with some of AQ’s grievances.

    2. To understand AQ, I spent a lot of time trying to understand the Arab world. In the bigger picture, I believe that the Arab world and Islam is undergoing it’s own internal Political and Religious Reformation. This process started almost a century ago as the Ottoman Empire crumbled and the Sykes-Picote treaty drew new lines in the sand and created nation-states. AQ is an ideology that provides an alternative to government and religion from the current hated norm. Thus, it has not died. It was never dead, and it resonates with some folks.

    3. If we want to understand AQ, then we must respect the ideology and stop dismissing it as terrorism. Terrorism is merely the form of political violence that AQ is using in order to gain power and maneuver space (Given their size, it is the only option that they have). Instead, I think that we need to look at AQ in the same vein that we would consider the spirit of the American Revolution, the ideals of the French Revolution, and the initial ideals of the Russian Revolution. Previously (myself included), AQ was dismissed as akin to anarchist in the late 19th century angry at uncontrolled capitalism.

    4. The breakout of fighting in Iraq was predicted. What is currently happening is not a surprise to folks who spent a lot of time in these provinces (It caused many nightmares for me and great sadness). Over the next year, we can expect the Sunnis to escalate in order to control Northern Syria, Anbar Province, Saladin Province, and Diyala Province in Iraq. The fighting is due to mistakes by both the Assad and Maliki govt’s inability to govern inclusively. Rather, they govern as a means of vengeance. The question at hand is how much of the ideology of AQ will resonate or immerse into the way the Sunnis choose to govern. Don’t be fooled- these are not ungoverned spaces. They just aren’t governed by nation-states. (See also Kurdistan).

    5. Be wary of experts. Currently, most experts are trying to justify and protect their published thoughts and theories promoting US military intervention in the form of COIN (i.e. their misreadings of the Malayan conflict). The funniest quote that I’ve read is “COIN cannot die because if their is an insurgency, then there must be counter-insurgency.” This is stupid thinking that has led to trillions of dollars wasted and countless lives lost. Either through hubris or tunnel vision, they’ve lost the ability to think creatively and analytically.

    6. Counter-Terrorism. Read Nick Terse’s “Spec Ops Goes Global” over at Tom’s Dispatch. I’d ask that you try to stay objective- I have a lot of good friends in that world. I disagree with their missions, but they honestly believe in them. I hope that Nick’s piece will lead to a public discourse on what we as a nation want our Spec Ops doing in foreign policy. They are no longer a small strategic asset used sparingly. They are the main effort. Thus, they cannot operate in the shadows, and we must take ownership for their actions.

    Forecast: Unfortunately, unless we see major internal political reform, we can expect the next two decades to continue to be bloody in the Middle East. During this fighting (as with the last two decades in Iraq), we will see massive population displacements. I have no idea what the final lines in the sand will look like.

    1. Mike,

      Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful and informative comment. I added a link to the excellent TomDispatch article (I’ve been promoting that on Twitter), and added the full title to the USMA CTC (a great resource, which I’ve found helpful). I will lift this into a post in the next few days.

      I agree with this on all points. There are many posts on the FM website on the themes you touched upon.

      About our Special Operations Forces:

      1. The biggest re-branding exercise in the history of the world, 21 August 2010 — A new & darker image for America.
      2. Killing the leaders of our enemy. Is this the fast track to victory – or disaster?, 25 October 2010
      3. About the strategic significance of bin Laden’s execution, and the road not taken, 5 May 2011
      4. The men of US Special Operations Command are heroes. But are their deeds heroic?, 15 August 2011
      5. The military takes us back to the future. To Vietnam, again and again.. 14 March 2013

      The current fighting in Iraq was quite obvious in 2008 as the endgame, despite the crowing of the COIN folks about their pacification of Iraq:

      1. The Iraq insurgency has ended, which opens a path to peace, 13 March 2007
      2. Beyond Insurgency: An End to Our War in Iraq, 27 September 2007:
      3. Iraq, after the war, 20 May 2008

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