The Al Qaeda Enigma: As the US Election Looms, American Leaders Boast That the Jihadists Have Been Defeated, but, Intelligence Analysts Warn, They Are Far from Beaten and Remain 'The Most Serious Terrorist Threat to the United States'

By Blanche, Ed | The Middle East, November 2008 | Go to article overview

The Al Qaeda Enigma: As the US Election Looms, American Leaders Boast That the Jihadists Have Been Defeated, but, Intelligence Analysts Warn, They Are Far from Beaten and Remain 'The Most Serious Terrorist Threat to the United States'


Blanche, Ed, The Middle East


General Michael Hayclen, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), has declared that Al Qaeda is on the ropes, a spent force. "We saw the strategic defeat of Al Qaeda in Iraq on 30 May, the near strategic defeat for Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. We have witnessed significant setbacks for Al Qaeda globally."

Leading Muslim theologians and scholars have been denouncing Al Qaeda and, in some cases, Osama bin Laden personally, for the number of Muslims being killed by the jihadists, more, some say, than the number of 'infidels' killed since 9/11.

More tellingly, some prominent jihadists have recanted and denounced Al Qaeda in the most stinging terms. The most prominent were Sayyed Imam Al Sharif, known by many as "the ideological godfather of Al Qaeda", from his prison cell in Egypt, and Sheikh Salman Al Oudah, an influential Saudi Arabian religious scholar.

But veteran intelligence specialists in the US and Europe caution that such signals should not be overestimated and stress that Al Qaeda is far from beaten. US forces have delivered several hard blows to Al Qaeda in the last few years, says Michael Scheuer, who once headed the CIA unit tracking Bin Laden, but "not to the catastrophic extent some claim".

Even the damage caused by the damning pronouncements of Al Sharif and Al Oudah, he says, will have limited impact. They may be music to the ears of US leaders who see them as damaging Bin Laden, but "their words ... would pose a much greater threat to the future or Al Qaeda and the Islamist movement ... if it was not so starkly clear that both men are fully under the not-always-gentle thumb of their respective national regimes and that each has personally benefited from his willingness to recant former hard-line positions."

Scheuer and other counterterrorism veterans say the campaign to defeat Al Qaeda cannot be measured in military terms alone, but rather to what extent the organisation's ideology is discredited. This, they contend, has not yet happened. Al Qaeda "remains the most serious terrorist threat to the United States," former CIA officer Ted Gistaro, the US national intelligence officer for transnational threats, declared.

Scheuer has noted: "It often comes as a surprise to people to discover that Bin Laden has never claimed Al Qaeda can or would defeat the US, much less that Al Qaeda's goal was to destroy the 'American way of life' or 'Western civilisation'.

"He is not a man given to grandiose pronouncements and has limited his goal to incrementally increasing the pain inflicted on the United States and its allies in order to force them to disengage from the Middle East to the greatest extent possible." If this goal is achieved, Bin Laden believes, Al Qaeda and its allies would then be able to focus on its main targets: the state of Israel and its enemies in the Arab world.

Twenty years after Osama bin Laden and others founded Al Qaeda on 11 August 1988 in Peshawar, at a Pakistani base camp for the mujahedin during the final phase of the 1979-89 Afghanistan War against the Soviets, and a decade after the Saudi renegade's audacious declaration of war on the US in August 1998, it is time to assess Al Qaeda's progress and its prospects.

Amid a widespread decline in support among the world's Sunni Muslims for Al Qaeda, most notably in Iraq, particularly because of its murderous suicide bombings, it is indeed tempting to believe Al Qaeda and the far-flung network of home-grown cells that have sprung up since 9/11 is on the ropes.

The organisation has undoubtedly suffered serious setbacks in recent months, mostly through covert US operations. Several senior field commanders have been assassinated. They include Midhat Mursi Al Sayid Umar, better known by his nora de guerre of Abu Khabab Al Masri, an Egyptian explosives and chemicals expert, who was the group's leader in Afghanistan and had a $5m US bounty on his head. …

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