Fawaz Gerges, media-friendly academic, is out and about, telling us that Al Qaeda is over, it’s had its day, it’s history. Al Qaeda is “organizationally moribund.” Indeed, it “peaked with the 9/11 attacks.”
After bin Laden, his cohort, and the Taliban were expelled from Afghanistan, al-Qaeda was effectively decapitated. The leadership was on the run or captured. Dispersed haphazardly into various countries, most of which were unwelcoming, bin Laden’s men were rounded up by vigilant local security services competing to show Americans how cooperative they were.
Al Qaeda’s numbers have also plummeted: “At the height of its power in the late 1990s, al Qaeda marshaled 3,000–4,000 armed fighters. Today its ranks have dwindled to around 300, if not fewer.” For years now, it has faced “a serious shortage of skilled recruits in the Muslim heartland.” Gerges has written a book—more an extended essay—devoted to this proposition, entitled The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda. There he complains that “America’s political culture remains obsessed with al-Qaeda and the terrorism narrative continues to resonate both with ordinary Americans and with top military commanders.”
Maybe, maybe not. The problem is that I remember having heard the same thing from Gerges sometime in the past—to be precise, just one year before 9/11. Here is Gerges, fall 2000:
Despite Washington’s exaggerated rhetoric about the threat to Western interests still represented by Bin Ladin—US officials term Bin Ladin “the pre-eminent organizer and financier of international terrorism” and have placed him on the FBI’s “10 most wanted” list—his organization, Al-Qa’ida, is by now a shadow of its former self. Shunned by the vast majority of Middle Eastern governments, with a $5 million US bounty on his head, Bin Ladin has in practice been confined to Afghanistan, constantly on the run from US, Egyptian, and Saudi Arabian intelligence services. Furthermore, consumed by internecine rivalry on the one hand, and hemmed in by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt on the other, Bin Ladin’s resources are depleting rapidly. Washington plays into his hands by inflating his importance. Bin Ladin is exceptionally isolated, and is preoccupied mainly with survival, not attacking American targets. Since the blasts in Africa [in 1998], not a single American life has been lost to al-Qa’ida.
Not a single one! And here was Gerges, only six months before 9/11:
Should not observers and academics keep skeptical about the U.S. government’s assessment of the terrorist threat? To what extent do terrorist “experts” indirectly perpetuate this irrational fear of terrorism by focusing too much on farfetched horrible scenarios? Does the terrorist industry, consciously or unconsciously, exaggerate the nature and degree of the terrorist threat to American citizens?
These have to go down as the most embarrassing assessments of Al Qaeda and terrorism made by anyone prior to 9/11. But while Gerges obviously didn’t know much about Al Qaeda at the time, he did know something about America: everything you’ve said quickly gets forgotten if you keep talking, especially if you actively cover your tracks. This is how he tried to do it one week after the 9/11 attacks:
Sadly, I’m not surprised that the evidence for the most devastating terrorist attack in history points to a Middle East connection.
I have just returned from the area after almost two years there as a MacArthur fellow. I was conducting field research on how Islamic movements perceive and interact with the West, particularly the United States. The writing was all over the wall.
Not surprised! Writing all over the wall! Well, it would have been a total surprise to anyone who’d read Gerges before 9/11, and I’d wager it was a total surprise to him as well.
Gerges only knows one tune: Muslims hate the terrorists among them, so the terrorists are always losing popularity, struggling to survive, “on the run,” and so on. Just leave the Muslims alone, they’ll sort it out. The idea may look debatable to you, but it’s worked for him—professorships, book contracts, media gigs. How well it holds up in practice doesn’t really matter, given the public’s memory deficit. Still, it’s amazing (to me) that Gerges shows not a smidgeon of the humility usually imparted by a rough encounter with reality. Not him! He just repeats his same old arguments, made with the same measure of cocksure certitude.
I don’t know if Al Qaeda is up for another round or has gone down for the count, and experts disagree on it. I do know that Fawaz Gerges doesn’t know either. And if it were my day job to know, I’d be worried—should Gerges, by some strange aberration of nature, actually be some sort of negative oracle, whose assertions are reliably and consistently false.