"On balance, we are doing pretty well," CIA Director Michael
Hayden told The Washington Post last week, speaking about America's war
against Al Qaeda. "Near strategic defeat of Al Qaeda in
Iraq. Near strategic defeat for Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia.
Significant setbacks for Al Qaeda globally – and here I'm going to use the word
'ideologically' – as a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of
Hayden's assessment comes on the heels of two very important articles
published last week in The New Republic, by Peter Bergen and Paul
Cruickshank, and in The New Yorker, by Lawrence Wright, on the turning
sentiment in the Muslim world against Al Qaeda and its gruesome tactics.
Taken together with Hayden's assessment, one cannot help but feel a sense of
Writing a lengthy article in The New Yorker, the Pulitzer
Prize-winning author Wright – whose book The Looming Tower is a must
read for anyone interested in understanding Al Qaeda, its leaders and its
intellectual foundations – told the tale of Dr. Fadl.
Fadl, who has gone by many different names over his life, was for a time the
leader of Al Jihad, an Egyptian terrorist group dedicated to overthrowing the
Egyptian government and creating an Islamic state. More importantly, he was the
mentor of Al Qaeda's number two man Ayman al-Zawahiri and a part of the
original core of Al Qaeda. In the mid-1990s, when he was in Sudan with
Osama Bin Laden, Fadl wrote one of the most important books forming the
Jihadist world-view, The Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge.
"Few books in recent history have done as much damage," Wright
writes in his article. One source quoted by Bergen
and Cruickshank described Fadl as like "the big boss in the Mafia in Chicago."
But now in a recently published book, Rationalization of Jihad, Fadl,
who currently languishes in an Egyptian prison, has turned against Al Qaeda,
Zawahiri and global Jihad. Modifying and rejecting some of his previous
writings, Fadl's book has caused a stir in the Muslim world, especially amongst
"Whatever the motivations behind the writing of the book, its
publication amounted to a major assault on radical Islamist theology, from the
man who had originally formulated much of the thinking," Wright explains.
Similarly, in a comparatively shorter article in The New Republic,
and Cruickshank document this trend of former Jihadists turning against Al
A large "group of religious scholars, former fighters, and militants
who had once had great influence over Al Qaeda's leaders, and who – alarmed by
the targeting of civilians in the West, the senseless killings in Muslim
countries, and Al Qaeda's barbaric tactics in Iraq," they write,
"have turned against the organization, many just in the past year."
What makes these intellectual attacks on Al Qaeda most striking is that they
come from those with street cred, or perhaps more fittingly, cave cred. In many
cases, these are former Jihadists who participated in violence. Others, like
Dr. Fadl, have been among the intellectual foundations upon which Al Qaeda has
What this means is that potential terrorists may think twice about joining
Al Qaeda or similar Jihadist groups. If they begin to doubt that their deeds
are sanctioned by Islam and they may not get 72 virgins after all, well, that
may be somewhat of a disincentive. Al Qaeda operatives may not find themselves
welcome in many areas of the Muslim world, as we have recently seen throughout Iraq. And those
who were so willing to finance Al Qaeda's operations may now reconsider.
This is not to say that those who are now condemning Al Qaeda's tactics are
savory figures. I wouldn't want to break bread with them. Many of their views
remain despicable. While they speak out against Jihad, against Western targets
and the killing of innocent civilians, both articles make clear that those now
speaking out deem resistance to American troops in Iraq as legitimate. But we have to
take what we can get. And what these figures are saying could profoundly help America in its
war against terror.
We also cannot say that American policy is predominantly responsible for
this great turn of events. In tennis parlance, you may say that Al Qaeda has
committed unforced errors. It is their tactics that have turned former
intellectual travelers against them. Their carnage, their sadism, their medieval
vision. Combined with America's
muscular response to the Sept. 11 attacks, we may have found the strategy that
will help us win this long war.
Nonetheless, terrorism experts like Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University
caution us not to overlook the threat Al Qaeda still poses. This heartening
development should not lull us into a state of complacency. Al Qaeda continues
to seek weapons of mass destruction to hit us on the home front. They have
created a relative safe haven in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of
must continue to be vigilant and proactive.
Still, we do have something to cheer. While conceding that Al Qaeda remains
a serious threat in the short term, Bergen and Cruickshank write that
"encoded in the DNA of apocalyptic Jihadist groups like Al Qaeda are the
seeds of their own long-term destruction: their victims are often Muslim
civilians; they don't offer a positive vision of the future (but rather the
prospect of Taliban-style regimes from Morocco to Indonesia); they keep
expanding their list of enemies, including any Muslim who doesn't precisely
share their world view; and they seem incapable of becoming politically
successful movements because their ideology prevents them from making the
real-world compromises that would allow them to engage in genuine
The writers aptly conclude, channeling Winston Churchill, that "this is
not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the
end of the beginning."
Let us hope that it is so.