The Strategic Failures of Al Qaeda

By McCabe, Thomas R. | Parameters, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

The Strategic Failures of Al Qaeda


McCabe, Thomas R., Parameters


In the ebb and flow of the war against extremist--jihadi--Islam, al Qaeda and its allies have endured a significant number of major losses. (1) They were defeated in Egypt, Algeria, and the Balkans in the 1980s and 1990s. Although jihadi groups remain a significant residual threat in Iraq, the consensus of the Iraqi populace is evidently that they have no place in that nation's future. Their attempted uprising in Saudi Arabia has been crushed. Al Qaeda and the Taliban were routed from Afghanistan in 2001, and if the Taliban have gained in strength in recent years it has been due far more to the weakness of the Karzai government than to anything al Qaeda has done.

There are a variety of factors that contributed to these defeats. A central reason is the strategy and tactics used by al Qaeda in particular and the jihadis in general, and the view of the world on which that strategy and tactics are based. The extremists' entire worldview has been based on misguided or fanciful assumptions that have little or no basis in actual fact. Some of these assumptions are unique to al Qaeda, some to radical Islam (a movement that goes far beyond al Qaeda and the jihadis), and--ominously--many are common within the Arab and Muslim worlds. The bottom-line is that, while at the tactical level al Qaeda and the jihadis may sometimes be astute, even brilliant, at the strategic level they are so badly misinformed as to be almost delusional. The significance of this lack of comprehension is threefold: (1) It has led to major errors in strategy and tactics that have led al Qaeda and the jihadis to multiple defeats and disasters; (2) it points to strategic principles that can contribute to the defeat and ultimate eradication of al Qaeda; and (3) since there is no reason to believe that al Qaeda will be the last of its ilk, the next jihadi group may learn enough from the present mistakes to be even more dangerous and more successful.

Five Critical Mistakes

Five critical mistakes are apparent, each of which had a significant strategic impact. Some were mistakes by al Qaeda in particular, while the rest have been mistakes by al Qaeda and the jihadis in general.

* Misreading the situation in the Middle East and the role of the United States.

* Misreading the weakness of the United States.

* Expanding the war and bringing in additional enemies.

* Alienating the local populace.

* Indifference to Muslim casualties.

Misreading the Situation

A central mistake of al Qaeda has been choosing the United States, the "Far Enemy," as its primary enemy and target, and its related decision to wage offensive jihad against the United States on American soil. These decisions were the result of other and previous mistakes.

In recent decades, a variety of jihadi groups, many of which, such as Ayman al Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad, eventually merged with al Qaeda, have staged uprisings in various Sunni Muslim nations with the proclaimed intention of replacing existing governments with theocracies that will rule according to the extremists' interpretation of sharia (Muslim religious law). (2) All of these uprisings failed. Al Qaeda and the survivors of those jihads largely refused to recognize or admit that these failures were due to their mistakes, the result of some combination of miscalculating popular support for the uprisings, use of tactics that alienated local popular opinion, and because the local governments--most prominently the Egyptian and Algerian--were effective or brutal enough in their countermeasures to defeat them. Instead, the jihadis looked for somebody else to blame. They chose to blame the United States, asserting that governments in the Arab world were placed in power, are kept in power, and are subservient to the United States, and if America were forced to withdraw its support, those governments would collapse. This conclusion has little to do with reality and shows a profound and willful disregard of the reason for their failures and a lack of understanding of their own governments and the situation in the region in general. …

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