Has the United States been successful in its war against terrorism? Yes, without a doubt. Although Islamic militancy remains a potent force, especially in Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, Washington’s relentless pursuit of armed jihadists has severely damaged the capacity of Sunni radical groups to strike the United States, at home and abroad.
Al Qaeda chose to make Iraq the mother of all battles against America. Its decisive defeat in that war—the astonishing spectacle of seeing Sunni Iraqis, who’d once welcomed al Qaeda to wage a guerre à outrance against the Iraqi Shi’a and the Western coalition, damn its holy warriors on Al Jazeera for their savagery—has probably permanently changed the conception of jihadists in the Arab world.
The Great Arab Revolt, the most momentous liberation movement in the region since the coming of the Prophet Muhammad, has also fundamentally changed the environment that helped birth jihadists after World War II. Waging war against illegitimate governments—and against the “far enemy” that maintained these dictatorships—has been an integral part of the jihadist argument. If democracy can put down roots in the region, the Middle East’s “crisis of legitimacy” will be solved. With Islamists participating in elected government, it will be vastly more difficult for jihadists to advance arguments against popularly elected governments and the Western powers with which these governments deal.
An enormously powerful strain of thought within Sunni Islam holds that the Muslim politic, as a body, is incapable of error. As Muslims start voting, as Muslims start debating the big questions about man and God and parliament, jihad will likely be pushed far from the mainstream of Islamic thought. Arab jihadists will no doubt linger and search out like-minded souls elsewhere, but they will be fighting a losing war on their home turf. In Islamic history, radicals have repeatedly lost once the faithful have clearly denounced them.
The West will still have to deal with Islamic militancy in South Asia. Afghanistan and Pakistan are the new intellectual and physical homes of al Qaeda. Many of the subcontinent’s most radical Islamic groups have essentially merged with al Qaeda, absorbing its global aspirations and anger. Given the large expatriate Pakistani populations in Europe, the importance of European foreign and domestic intelligence services in the fight against Islamic militancy cannot be overstated. Britain’s MI-5 really is America’s first line of defense against South Asian terrorism.
The war in Afghanistan—whether America withdraws and the country returns to civil war—will also likely have a major impact on the appeal of religious militancy in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. If Islamic radicalism in Pakistan grows more vigorous and influential, the volatility of Indo-Pakistani relations will no doubt increase substantially. That can’t be good for the United States.
And last but not least, there is Iran and Hezbollah. We know that al Qaeda–Iranian ties have not been insubstantial. Recent information released by the Treasury Department, and gathered in great part by the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, strongly suggests that Iranian-al Qaeda ties are operationally ongoing. It’s not at all clear how the Great Arab Revolt will affect Iran, especially if the Assad regime—a key partner of Iran and the Hezbollah—falls in Damascus.
It’s entirely possible that the eruption of the Green Movement in the summer of 2009 could return, especially as Iran readies itself for parliamentary and presidential elections. It’s not at all unlikely that Iran will try to strengthen its ties with its allies and fortify its ecumenical outreach to Sunni radical groups that agree on the most fundamental principle of the Islamic Republic: Hatred of the United States.
Since 9/11, Washington has focused on the threat from “non-governmental” terrorist groups. Both the Bush and Obama administrations executed this mission admirably. But al Qaeda has never been a completely independent actor, given the aid it has received from Saudi royals, the Sudanese, the Iranians, the Pakistanis, and Mullah Omar. We should watch Iranian-al-Qaeda ties carefully. Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei and the commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps don’t have many moral objections to al Qaeda’s mission and tactics against the United States. The main obstacle to a broad, energetic anti-American alliance has probably always been fear of American power unleashed. If that fear diminishes, we may be in considerable trouble.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and the author of The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East (Hoover Institution Press).