Al Qaeda is dead! (Again!)

Fawaz Gerges

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.

Osama Blockbuster

This article by Martin Kramer was published at National Review Online on December 14, 2001. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

The video released Thursday is overwhelming evidence for the role of Osama bin Laden as mastermind of the terror attacks of September 11. Its effect nearly everywhere will be to persuade viewers that he was responsible for initiating the attacks. And his own words attest that his role went beyond inspiring the perpetrators. Bin Laden claims in the video to have been in regular communication with the operatives themselves. He professes to have known the logistical plan, the timing, and the participants in the hijackings. In the video’s most hideous segment, he tells his guests that he was the most “optimistic” of the planners, believing that the planes crashing into the World Trade Center would bring down all the floors above impact.

If by some misfortune, bin Laden is captured and not killed, this video will be prime evidence for the prosecution. Certainly its effect on opinion in the West will be to silence all those who claim that the “war on terror” could be a case of mistaken identity. But what of Arab and Muslim opinion? Some hope has been expressed that the release of the video will impact the so-called “Arab street,” which is ritually skeptical of American claims. In many places in the Arab world, doubts have been expressed about bin Laden’s role, and in some places elaborate conspiracy theories have flourished, attributing the attacks to just about everyone but Arab hijackers. Will it make a difference to these doubters when bin Laden is overheard openly boasting of his triumph?

The answer depends on the Arabs in question. They fall into three broad categories.

Those Arabs who decided long ago that the Mossad engineered the attacks are beyond the influence of any evidence. They live in a world haunted by dark conspiracies, where hidden hands move everything. To their minds, a fake video would be a perfect tool in the conspiracy against Islam. They will claim that the video has been staged or doctored — that it is black propaganda meant to dupe the Muslims. Certainly there will be many who doubt the video’s authenticity. They will assert that a technological superpower would have no difficulty faking the entire scene.

Then there are bin Laden’s admirers — those who have celebrated the attacks of September 11. They will welcome the video, since it confirms that bin Laden is not some false idol of their own making, but the authentic author of the blow delivered by Muslim “martyrs” to an arrogant America. Of course, had the video been released a month ago, their joy would have been unmitigated. Now it is mixed with the realization that their “true Islam” also paid a heavy price for September 11: the destruction of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the ideal Islamic regime. They had expected America to suffer yet another blow in Afghanistan. Instead, the Taliban collapsed, many Arab fighters were slaughtered, and bin Laden was put to flight. Perhaps there will even be a few who will see bin Laden on video, and curse him for his own obvious arrogance, and his cocky self-assurance, as though God were guiding his every act.

Between these two extremes, there is a sizeable body of opinion that takes this view: yes, Muslims were responsible for September 11; no, bin Laden had nothing to do with it. In this view, America jumped to a convenient conclusion: It needed to hammer somebody to quench its thirst for revenge, and bin Laden fit the bill. The entire Afghan war, in this view, is a case of mistaken identity. If there were a conspiracy, bin Laden had little to do with it; America simply used him as a pretext for waging a war it had long wanted to wage in Afghanistan.

This argument has rested, in part, on the notion that bin Laden was incapable of mounting such an operation in the first place. A version of this notion, as filtered through American academe, can be found in a statement by Fawaz Gerges, a chaired professor at Sarah Lawrence University, made immediately after the attacks. (Gerges had just returned from two years in the Middle East, where he researched Islamic movements on the dime of the MacArthur Foundation.)

I doubt it very much if Bin Laden is capable now and on his own of masterminding such complex and well-coordinated attacks in the heartland of America and in several U.S. cities. He has been under siege for the last few years. The United States has committed considerable resources to restricting his movements and reach. All his resources are monitored minute by minute. We have an army of agents keeping track of every move of his. Although the Taliban have refused his requests to expel him from Afghanistan, they have restricted his movements and kept him under a tight leash.

(In July 2000, the same Gerges told the Washington Post: “Osama bin Laden is really a spent force. He has little support outside Afghanistan. He is in a state of siege by the U.S. and other intelligence organizations.”)

In fact, the United States never claimed to have bin Laden under a “state of siege,” or to be capable of “tracking his every move,” “minute by minute.” This is not the case now, and it was not the case then. But those who did believe this, especially in the Arab world, have refused to accept even the possibility of bin Laden’s responsibility for September 11.

If the video has any impact in the Arab and Muslim worlds, it will have it upon these viewers. They will squirm in discomfort on viewing an Osama bin Laden completely at odds with their prior assumptions. Here is a man in command, and a commander in the know, meeting freely with visitors, and boasting openly of his role. He does so without the slightest fear that anyone might be monitoring his words. Here is a man who supposedly refused to allow any electrical equipment in his presence (it might betray his location) gabbing away in front of someone’s home video camera. Here is a man who appears absolutely confident that he is safe and secure in Taliban hands — even after September 11. In the famous bin Laden recruitment video, it was clear that he would; in this video, he makes it clear that he could — and did.

Of course, it is always possible that many of these viewers will write off the video as a fake, or assert that despite bin Laden’s confession, he could not have done it. Arab journalists and intellectuals are notoriously impervious to evidence. But there are a few who have suspended judgment on the war — pretty much the most one could have hoped for. The video offers them a ladder down from the fence, and provides them with ammunition they can use against their critics.

There is one more aspect worth emphasizing. The Taliban, it will be recalled, professed a willingness to turn over bin Laden, provided the United States gave proof of his responsibility. Yet bin Laden himself, right under their noses and before a large group, boasted of his responsibility. The Taliban must have known this, and probably knew of everything else, quite conceivably in advance. The video is thus an indirect but persuasive indictment of bin Laden’s hosts, whose removal from power was a stated American war aim — and one that has already been achieved.

So it is useful to have the video, and it is good that it was released. But the most effective American propaganda was and remains this: victory. So far, the war has done much to restore awe for America in the Arab and Muslim worlds — an awe that had been eroded by years of irresolution. As bin Laden put it in the video: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.” America is now the strong horse. Some Arabs and Muslims may not like it, but they do fear it, and that is nearly as good.

Likewise, it’s great to have bin Laden indicting himself on film. But it’s no substitute for the real flesh-and-blood bin Laden. When he next appears on video, he should be either dead or blindfolded — and the impact of that scene on Arab opinion will be indisputable.