The most formidable al Qaeda franchises have embedded themselves within complex local conflicts in failing states such as Somalia, Yemen and Syria, notes Ali Soufan, the author of “Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State”:
If al Qaeda ultimately succeeds in these struggles, it will again possess stable home bases from which to launch ambitious attacks against the West. If it is defeated, it will simply morph again, from an insurgency back into a terrorist organization. The same grim logic applies to Islamic State. After its self-styled caliphate falls, it will become what it was at its origins after the U.S. invasion of Iraq: an itinerant terrorist group, sowing chaos by murdering civilians—most of them Muslim.
Such possible transformations raise the terrifying prospect of a reconciliation between al Qaeda and Islamic State. Today, the rival groups quarrel over the claim of Islamic State’s “caliph” to lead all Sunni Muslims. But if Islamic State no longer governs territory, its leader is no longer a caliph, and the dispute falls away, opening the door to a merger between the groups. Whether they unite or not, it is only a matter of time before bin Laden’s followers again turn their sustained attention back to the West and the U.S.
How should we respond to this threat? Soufan writes in the Wall Street Journal:
Military muscle alone won’t do. We can kill as many terrorists as we want, but if more keep coming to fill jihadist ranks, we will make no headway. Defeating al Qaeda and its progeny requires cutting off their supply of recruits, and we can do that only by taking more effective action in the arena of ideology:
- First, we must counter the false jihadist narrative that the West wants a “war against Islam.” This would entail, for example, making good on our rhetoric about trying to end the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, avoiding the temptation to scapegoat all Muslims for the actions of a few terrorists and discouraging our leaders from inveighing against Islam itself.
- We also must help to alleviate the humanitarian catastrophes that incubate terrorism. In Afghanistan in the 1980s, fundamentalist madrassas in refugee camps produced the Taliban—literally, “pupils.” We are now seeing a replay in Syria and Yemen, where millions of children go uneducated and face indoctrination by jihadists. Yet the Trump administration’s budget plans threaten precisely the tools we need to meet these challenges—diplomacy and foreign aid.
- Finally, we must do better at exposing the fundamental hypocrisy of a movement that claims to be the arbiter of true Islamic piety but routinely bombs mosques and marketplaces. We must craft a true and hopeful story to drown out the false and despairing one that terrorists tell.
“Ultimately, the solution lies in tackling the root causes of radicalization, not just its symptoms. That is unlikely to generate footage exciting enough for cable news, but we can win only by becoming more tenacious than our enemy,” Soufan concludes. RTWT