Jihadi Violence: Grounds for Optimism?

Lawrence Wright (author of The Looming Tower) in the June 2 New Yorker gives significant examples of violent Islamic fundamentalists renouncing violence. How much better off would we be if we had not become distracted by Iraq and had held true to our values after 2001?

In the June 2 New Yorker, Lawrence Wright (author of The Looming Tower) teases out the implications of Dr. Fadl, the former terrorist leader of Al Jihad, a progenitor of Al Qaeda, rejecting Al Qaeda’s violence in a statement issued from an Egyptian Prison in May 2007. While Wright cannot be sure that Fadl’s voice was not coerced, he seems to credit the new writings as authentic, and he believes that they will have some influence in Jihadi circles. Fadl powerfully criticizes Al Qaeda on prudential as well as ethical and scriptural grounds.

Wright also tells the story of the Egyptian Islamic Group, which effectively renounced violence through moral discussion in (repressive) Egyptian jails. They were all released, and there were only two known instances of regression toward violence, In both cases the men were turned in by other members of the group.

Wright concludes with a section titled, “Is Al Qaeda Finished?” Egyptian intelligence believes that the core Al Qaeda numbers less than 200. While the virus is abroad, and there are now many others who would say as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad did, that “our business is terrorism,” it is also possible that with enlightened management of the ideological struggle, in combination with targeted intelligence operations, the “war on terror” against Al Qaeda need not be a long-term conflict. In Pakistan, increased flows of suicide bombers into Afghanistan coexist with public opinion soundings that have turned against terrorism. It is not at all certain which narrative will win out, but it is certain that America has woefully damaged its own position by its actions at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Nevertheless, America has to some extent been fortunate in its enemies &#8212 in the sense that Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and especially Zarqawi in Iraq have been so brutal and their tactics have been in favor of an ultimate goal that does not have a very broad appeal.

On the other hand, energy and food price trends are likely to exacerbate inequaility in the Islamic world, increasing instability and fertilizing the seedbeds of radicalism. And we will never be able to relax our defensive and intelltigence vigilance given the vulnerabilities that have been exposed for all to see.

It’s amazing to think how different the world might be today If we had stayed focussed on the real threat, not gone into Iraq, captured or killed Bin Laden at Tora Bora, and stayed true to our values and not built up the terrorist threat into some sort of global monollith (or trancendental challenge of the 21st century, in John McCain’s terms).

How different would our political culture be if the Bush administration had used 9/11 as an opportunity to unite around problem solving and policy discussion rather than to divide us with fear?

Continue reading for a sidelight on how the administration is so in thrall to the narrative of the “long war” that it won’t even use the elimination of a major long-time enemy to bolster its sagging approval.

It’s interesting to speculate on why the February killing of Imad Mughniyah in Damascus received so little attention from offical Washington. You would have thought that an administration facing very low approval would have wanted to call attention to the elimination of the man responsible for the 1986 Beirut Barracks bombing.

I was reminded of this by David Ignatius’s column. He speculates that Mughniyah was killed by a collaboration between the Mossad and Arab states in order to reduce Iran’s influence, though there is another theory, perhaps advanced to deflect suspicion from Israel and thus reduce the threat of retaliation, that Mughniyah got caught up in the machinations around an incipient coup by Syrian President Assad’s brother-in-law. Possibly the Bush administration may not have wanted to call attention to this indication that Iran’s support for terrorist organizations might be dealt with through other means than an attack on Iran itself. But more likely it is just trapped in the narrative of eternal struggle, much as John Foster Dulles feared that any thaw in the Cold War would sap the will of the American public to continue to be hostile to international communism.