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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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.