Interpreting Al Qaeda

BY Daveed Gartenstein-Ross JANUARY 6, 2014
BY Daveed Gartenstein-Ross JANUARY 6, 2014


The last year was a good one for al Qaeda, and for jihadism more broadly. Al Qaeda affiliates drove Iraq to its highest violence levels since 2007, capped off a year of increasingly sophisticated attacks in the Horn of Africa with a notorious assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, and took control of entire cities in northern Syria while attracting large numbers of foreigners to that battlefield. Jihadist groups also executed a series of daring jailbreaks in three countries in a 10-day period, mounted a major offensive in Egypt’s Sinai, and drove Tunisia’s government to declare an internal war.

Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images
Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images

This is not what most analysts expected at the height of the revolutionary events popularly known as the Arab Spring. The overwhelming majority of U.S. commentary asserted that al Qaeda had suffered a major, if not lethal, blow to its fortunes — although this triumphalism was not unanimous. The fact that al Qaeda wasn’t a real part of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions ostensibly sidelined it, and the two revolutions’ nonviolent methods were said to discredit al Qaeda’s narrative. It wasn’t unusual to hear proclamations that the combination of Osama bin Laden’s death and the uprisings meant « the end of al Qaeda in any meaningful sense, » and claims that these events were the « bookends to the war on terror — the final bookends. » Academics described al Qaeda as « the palest shadow of its former self, » news reports stated that « the franchise’s grand vision is unlikely to regain the appeal it once held, » and analysis from specialists concluded that al Qaeda had been diminished in every measurable way. Such views were embraced by the U.S. government, and top officials issued similar statements about al Qaeda’s impending demise.

Such views left little room for dissent. As Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University’s security studies program and a luminary in the field of terrorism studies, recently told me, « The triumphalism of Osama bin Laden’s death coinciding with the ending of the first phase of the Arab Spring created a concatenation of judgment where anyone who stood in the way was kind of bowled over or knocked aside. » But now such views are on the wane. A new conventional wisdom is emerging, encapsulated by retired U.S. Marine Corps general James Mattis’s comments at the Jamestown Foundation’s annual conference in December 2013 that « the congratulations that we heard two years ago on the demise of al Qaeda were premature and are now discredited. »

It is worth reviewing what went wrong whenever the majority view in a field largely misreads significant developments. Such reflection is even more necessary here, where there can be tremendous real-world consequences. Unexpected geopolitical developments invariably produce a host of predictions that prove inaccurate. However, several aspects of efforts to interpret al Qaeda and the uprisings suggest a deeply flawed analytic climate. That dominant analytic lines largely failed to consider scenarios in which al Qaeda and other jihadist groups might bestrengthened stands out; as does the fact that jihadist strategists’ own conception of the uprisings was largely absent from the literature. Indeed, many people involved in these debates consider the analytic climate to have been noticeably poor.

What does it mean to say that the dominant opinion in the field got al Qaeda wrong? One way of making this claim is approaching it as a simple binary, focusing on the capacities of jihadist groups and environmental effects on their trajectory, and determining whether analysts correctly assessed the two dimensions. But this is an unnecessarily limited view, which incorrectly sees the outcome of the past three years as an inevitability.

A better way of evaluating the performance of the field is thinking in terms of contingencies and branching points. What if Egypt’s transition had succeeded, and found a place for both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist al-Nour party in a stable democratic structure? What if Libya had consolidated into some kind of state? What if the situation in Syria had been resolved diplomatically before descending into civil war? Might the predictions of al Qaeda’s demise have looked more prescient had one or more of these occurred?

Al Qaeda’s demise may indeed have been one possible outcome of the revolutionary upheaval. But the lens of contingencies and branching points highlights problems in the analysis of al Qaeda and the Arab Spring: Most analyses of the revolutions’ impact on jihadism failed to examine alternative possibilities. Instead of assessing how governance and economic failures, or jihadist groups’ strategies for exploiting newly-won freedoms, might cause the movement to grow, most analyses took the most optimistic reading of the situation as the most likely and discounted views that didn’t fit this paradigm.

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Régis Ollivier

Officier supérieur (er). Officier de l'Ordre National du Mérite. Diplômé EMSST - Ecole Militaire Paris. Diplômé Langues Orientales - INALCO Paris.