The grand strategy of Al Qaeda

27 August 2005

This article (on TigerHawk) is notes posted from a lecture at Princeton by Michael Doran, Professor of Near Eastern Studies, who has thoroughly studied what Al Qaeda actually says and does. Lots of interesting stuff here.

Just as they are writing about Muslim victories a thousand years ago, Al Qaeda's intellectuals consider themselves in the middle of a very long term struggle. Al Qaeda is saying: "We are not revolutionaries. It is the next generation, or the generation after, that is going to carry out revolution in the Middle East." It is therefore not quite right to say that al Qaeda is itself going to overthrow these regimes. Al Qaeda's ambition is "to lay the groundwork for Saladin," and "shift the balance of power between radical Islam and the states in the Middle East." Al Qaeda is saying, in general, that we're living through a transitional period in history. It began with the fall of the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, there were two poles, both idolatrous, both anti-Islamic. Together with their puppets in the region, these two powers could control the public space in the region. But the fall of the Soviet Union, the globalization of the economy and other changes are having the effect of "opening up public spaces that are not controlled by the 'puppet' states." American military and economic power and the local states, which al Qaeda looks at as "one continuous complex," are not sufficient to control everything everywhere. The goal of al Qaeda, therefore, is to force the contraction of that American/'puppet state' power. This contraction will open up spaces for radical Islam to grow in power unmolested.
So al Qaeda claims it represents all of Islam, the true Islam, but "if you actually look at what they are doing on the ground, they play to the interests and perceptions of different groups. In Saudi Arabia, they play to southern discontents. Saudi Arabia has a "southern problem." Al Qaeda has been playing to southern disaffection. The southerners have an accent, they are calls 0-7s, which refers to the area code. The traditional routes for advancement in this region are the clergy or the security services. Clerics and guns. "Al Qaeda has opened up a third option, which is clerics with guns.
Like all good politicians, they manage to speak to the resentments of particular constituencies while purporting to speak for all Muslims. This is what makes them so dangerous. Doran warns that we will need more than democracy to win this fight. American ideology is not bad, but democracy alone is not going to solve their problems. It is not at all obvious that the people of southern Saudi Arabia, for example, are going to be better off in a free and open Saudi Arabia." This gives al Qaeda an opportunity to appeal to southern resentments, while it attacks democracy as idolatry. If Doran is right about al Qaeda's strategy, "then a lot of the stuff being said in the media and universities is wrong." Michael Scheuer is wrong. Al Qaeda is carrying out a struggle for a new order in the region. It is about relations between Muslims first and foremost, and concern about the United States is secondary.

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