The Magazine

Losing Strategy

Al Qaeda has cleverly united the world against itself.

Jul 25, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 42 • By DANIEL C. TWINING
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London

IN ATTACKING LONDON ON JULY 7, al Qaeda once again demonstrated its global reach. The attacks, carried out by a handful of British-born suicide bombers inspired by al Qaeda, overshadowed the presence in Gleneagles, Scotland, of the world's most powerful leaders at an expanded Group of Eight summit. Among this elite group, the United States, Britain, Russia, and India have suffered al Qaeda-inspired attacks on their soil in the past four years. Other G-8 countries, including Canada, France, Germany, and Italy, have disrupted terrorist cells operating on their territory. And that's not to mention the many other victims of al Qaeda violence: Spain, Turkey, Indonesia, Thailand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Jordan, Israel, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Kenya. Global terrorism is recasting international politics--but not necessarily to the advantage of the terrorists.

True, the globalization of Islamist terror demonstrates that an important source of power in international affairs--the ability to seize the geopolitical initiative--lies with today's transnational jihadists as much as with the strong states that traditionally order the international system. Further terrorist attacks could encourage vulnerable states to make a separate peace with al Qaeda, as did Spain after the 2004 Madrid bombings. But al Qaeda's string of attacks do not reflect a brilliant grand strategy of dividing the West. To the contrary, Osama bin Laden's historic accomplishment has been to unite most of the world against his cause; to deprive his movement of a national base; and to demonstrate the impotence of violent Islamist extremism in the face of popular aspirations to democratic modernity.

Since September 2001, al Qaeda has accomplished an extraordinary feat. Rather than dividing and weakening its declared enemies, it has spurred the formation of a global alliance dedicated to its defeat that would have been unimaginable four years ago. Few other challenges could bring together the United States, the states of Europe, Japan, Russia, and China in a grand coalition as strange as the World War II alliance of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin--but al Qaeda has done so, at significant cost to its own cause.

The effect of the London bombings on the G-8 summit demonstrates the shortsightedness of the terrorists' strategy. Before the attacks, observers were gleefully anticipating a summit rife with discord--on global warming, aid to Africa, the future of Europe, and Iraq. The London attack instead united the world's most powerful leaders as nothing else could. The attacks militarized a gathering previously dedicated to a soft agenda of Third World development and protecting the environment. Terrorists, not hydrocarbon emissions, were back in the crosshairs of the world's most powerful leaders.

Al Qaeda's rise has produced the kind of great power entente not seen since the Concert of Europe took shape in 1815 to sustain the post-Napoleonic international order. Today, thanks to bin Laden and his acolytes, the world is witnessing an international concert of power that includes America's natural allies in Europe and Japan as well as natural adversaries in Russia and China, and an array of unlikely new allies, from Pakistan to Uzbekistan.

There are drawbacks to this common sense of strategic purpose. China is exploiting America's strategic preoccupation to expand its influence in Asia, and Russia is reconstituting its internal political order along lines of czarist autocracy. At the same time, the threat from al Qaeda is constraining states like China and Russia from challenging Washington directly. It has overlaid an artificial structure of cooperation on an underlying logic of competition. In doing so, it has had the perverse effect, for the terrorists, of reinforcing America's hegemony.

Membership in this global concert includes regional adversaries--Israel and Egypt, India and Pakistan, China and Japan. It includes the very Arab autocracies the West is pressuring to reform, and emerging democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq. It encompasses regional powers like Brazil, South Africa, and Thailand. It also includes the world's largest Muslim state, Indonesia; Europe's largest Muslim state, Turkey; and India, with more Muslim citizens than any state in the Middle East--all democracies whose leaders represent far more Muslims than bin Laden and whose publics, polls show, overwhelmingly reject his vision of a violent, hateful Islam.

Al Qaeda has more state adversaries than nearly any force in history. That is a strategic failure of the first order.

SINCE 2001, AL QAEDA HAS INSPIRED a hard core of supporters within Muslim communities in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America. But this strategic gain has been balanced by the loss of a national base for its leaders, its training camps, and its cadres. Moreover, the terrorist threat has focused the world's attention on the Middle East's political renewal. Just as the Anglo-American response to September 11 deprived al Qaeda of its base in Afghanistan, so London should make it harder for terrorists and their public advocates to operate with impunity within Europe.

As a result of its own actions, al Qaeda lost Afghanistan as a base, the Taliban as a sponsor, and the Afghan people as any sort of ally--as demonstrated by the decisive result of the 2004 Afghan elections in favor of a democratic future guided by a vision of a peaceful, tolerant Islam. Al Qaeda has lost Saddam Hussein as a potential patron. It does not have the support of most Iraqis--a majority of whom have voted for leaders who oppose the insurgency. Moreover, it was only as a result of September 11 that democratization in the greater Middle East assumed its unprecedented urgency.

A new Pew poll shows that, within Muslim countries, "confidence in Osama bin Laden has declined markedly," support for suicide bombings has dropped dramatically, and four in five citizens of every country surveyed believe that "democracy can work in their country." Al Qaeda's war to Islamize the Middle East may ultimately result in the region's political transformation along lines favored not in bin Laden's caves but in Western capitals.

These strategic setbacks for al Qaeda should be reinforced by the tightening of domestic and regional counterterrorism controls in Europe following the London attacks. This would make it harder for the network to solicit funds, recruits, and allies within Europe. Britain, like other European nations, has been too relaxed for too long about known jihadist sympathizers and inciters of religious hatred operating in its cities. But there is every indication that the London bombs will inspire more aggressive counterterrorism policing and greater strategic unity against threats within Europe, making the region a harder place to preach violence, a harder target, and a more hostile environment for terrorist operations. If so, 7/7 will have set back al Qaeda's ability to exploit and grow its network behind enemy lines.

"WE WILL NOT BE TERRORIZED," said Tony Blair on the day of the London bombings. Free peoples will no doubt again suffer terrorist attack. But the choice of how democratic societies respond to terror is their own. The British people, including most of its Muslims, have not chosen to respond to the attacks of 7/7 as their enemies may have hoped.

Indeed, despite their global reach, al Qaeda's attacks, from New York to London, have consistently produced unintended consequences for the network's leaders. They have spurred the formation of the largest global coalition ever assembled to face down a shared enemy. They have inspired new levels of national unity and resolve in targeted countries. They have precipitated democratic openings in the greater Middle East, including in countries like Afghanistan that once served as the terrorists' territorial base. These are all strategic setbacks.

In Britain, the slogan that has come to symbolize the spirit of London--"We are not afraid"--reflects a national mood of quiet, self-assured defiance that is in keeping with Britain's traditional response to adversity. The British Empire enjoyed extraordinary strategic success in part because it never allowed a military victory by its adversaries, from Khartoum to the Hindu Kush, to go unpunished. Every European tyrant who has taken on England has lost. The fate of Britain's current adversaries, who possess no armies and control no continents, should be no different.

The British are not afraid. Given their self-induced strategy of defeat, and the collective power of the nations determined to destroy them, the terrorists should be.

Daniel C. Twining is the Joint Fulbright/Oxford Scholar at Oxford University, a consultant to the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and a former foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain. These are his own views.