Al Qaeda’s Enduring Appeal: Reflections and Implications

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When announcing his strategy to confront the Islamic State, American President Barrack Obama vowed to “degrade and destroy” the al Qaeda offshoot.[i] As this most recent phase of the war on terror progresses it is worthy of note that in nearly two decades of conflict, the U.S. has neither destroyed al Qaeda nor undermined the spread of its ideology and doctrine.[ii] To the contrary, Islamic militancy appears to be thriving as al Qaeda franchises and like-minded organizations continue to expand across the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and beyond while independent cells and lone wolves execute attacks throughout the globe. What accounts for this resilience? What is it about al Qaeda’s world view that continues to attract new followers despite constant bombardment by the world’s most potent military?[iii] The answer―or a significant portion of it―is that in fashioning their counterterrorism strategies, American presidents and policymakers have relied too heavily on physical force rather than acknowledging or redressing the core issues that underpin much of al Qaeda’s enduring appeal throughout the Islamic world. Consequently, jihadists taken off the battlefield have simply been replenished by new recruits of comparable zeal.  To correct this, U.S. leaders must adequately recognize the grievances that fuel the anti-Western sentiments of disaffected Muslims as well as the manner in which al Qaeda capitalizes off those grievances at the expense of American and Western interests.

Al Qaeda’s ascension to international prominence marked a pivotal moment for Islamic militancy. Although jihadist violence troubled many corners of the world well before the group’s formation in 1988, its practitioners lacked transnational cohesion and were largely consumed by local grievances within their home countries. Abdullah Azzam, for instance, devoted much of his energy to the Palestinian cause, and Ayman al Zahwahiri―al Qaeda’s current leader―initially focused his wrath against Egypt’s political elite.[iv] However this compartmental structure began to evolve with the emergence of Osama bin Laden. Under his leadership, al Qaeda fused several disparate militant agendas into a common movement oriented against the United States and its allies.[v] According to the new jihadist doctrine, injustices suffered by Muslims throughout the world were not simply local matters but ultimately the byproduct of American foreign policy. By supporting local autocratic regimes, providing aid to Israel, endorsing other nations’ wars against Muslim populations and conducting its own military maneuvers in the Middle East, Washington bore responsibility for entrenching a status quo that repressed and brutalized Muslims.[vi] Consequently, the U.S. had to be violently compelled to reconsider such practices. Al Qaeda’s brand of terrorism, therefore, was, and is, a reaction to the perceived malevolence of U.S. involvement in the region, and, like most acts of political violence, it is designed to produce specific policy revisions.[vii] Unfortunately, successive American presidential administrations have failed to appreciate the problematic nature of their encroachment in the region, or how effectively jihadists have exploited resentment against it. Instead, U.S. officials have relied primarily on military resources which have thus far fallen short.

Al Qaeda began displaying the extent of their lethality and anti-Americanism during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Throughout the 1990’s terrorist strikes inflicted substantial damage to numerous American targets, the most notable of which include the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the U.S.S. Cole while docked in Aden, Yemen.[viii] During the same period al Qaeda’s leadership tendered two official declarations of war against the U.S. and its allies as well as several public statements articulating the rationale behind their campaign to repel America’s intrusion into Muslim affairs.[ix] These provocations elicited a variety of responses from the Clinton administration. Federal agents apprehended several of the conspirators in the 1998 African embassy bombings, and Operation Infinite Reach was launched as retaliation for the strikes, in which a barrage of cruise missiles pummeled targets in Afghanistan and Sudan.[x] In 1996 the Central Intelligence Agency established a unit devoted solely to tracking and eliminating Osama bin Laden and it commenced its controversial Rendition program the year prior.[xi] Regrettably, these efforts did not significantly disable the organization. But more importantly, U.S. foreign policy in the Arab and Islamic world appeared to receive no serious reconsiderations following al Qaeda’s initial blows.[xii] Washington continued to retain supportive relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other authoritarian regimes, maintained its military presence on the Arabian Peninsula, took a less than even-handed approach to Palestinian statehood during the 1993 Oslo Accords as well as the 2000 Camp David negotiations, and engaged in armed conflicts in several Muslim countries including: Somalia, Serbia and Iraq.[xiii] Consequently, and unsurprisingly, al Qaeda’s critique of American policy continued to find a receptive audience and their cause carried on.

Like his predecessor, George W. Bush also declined to reassess the merits of entanglement in the Middle East during his tenure. Rather than recoiling from the region after 9-11, the administration embraced a foreign policy that called for a drastic escalation of American involvement. Bush and his colleagues concluded that the status quo of political repression and economic stagnation in the region rendered it a breeding ground for extremism, or as former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice dubbed it, “the world that produced al Qaeda.”[xiv] The solution to this, by their analysis, was militarily-imposed democratic reform beginning with regime change in Baghdad.[xv] The Bush Doctrine, as this policy came to be known was partially correct but severely missed the mark in other respects.[xvi] The plight of the Muslim world under its pre- 9-11 leadership was indeed problematic, however the “liberation” of Iraq did little to counter al Qaeda’s indictment of American policy given that support for other “apostate” regimes continued unabated, as did the provision of diplomatic and material assistance to Israel and other countries engaged in struggles against restive Muslim populations.[xvii] Most significantly, the Bush administration refused to grasp how prominent of a role American interventionism played in provoking terrorism. As mentioned, Washington’s military footprint in Arab lands and the indignation it generates is among al Qaeda’s most effective recruitment assets. Despite its allegedly benign intent, the invasion and occupation of a Muslim nation under dubious pretenses appeared to confirm al Qaeda’s narrative of American aggression and subsequently invigorated the global jihadist community. As a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate concluded in the midst of the Iraq war, the American presence served as the “cause célèbre of jihadists.”[xviii] Thus, Bush ultimately not only failed to adequately examine counterproductive components of American engagement in the Middle East but forcibly intervened to an even more inextricable degree, and exacerbated the very problem he set out to remedy.

Fortunately, the current administration has pursued a more balanced and less counterproductive approach to combating global terrorism. President Obama has not shied from employing force when he sees fit as evidenced by his liberal use of drone strikes and special operations raids in pursuit of high value targets.[xix] But while escalating these techniques Obama also managed to significantly curtail America’s military presence in the Middle East, primarily by adhering to the Iraq withdrawal timeframe and resisting pressure to deploy sizeable ground forces amidst the upheaval of the Arab Spring.[xx] Evidently he recognizes the inherent risks of intervention concerning its capacity to produce blowback. In delivering his commencement address at WestPoint military academy, Obama averred that, “some of our most costly mistakes come not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences…we must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.”[xxi] This pragmatic framework is arguably superlative to the shortfalls of his predecessors. However, broader, problematic regional policy still remains largely intact. To his credit Obama has repeatedly decried Israeli settlement construction, and consistently endorsed the pro-democratic uprisings of the Arab Spring. But rhetoric aside, Washington continues to tolerate Israeli behavior in the occupied territories, support repressive regimes―including the new militaristic government in Cairo― and conduct its own military operations in the region, albeit on a much smaller scale.[xxii] While Obama’s comparatively even-handed approach to combating terrorism is a welcome development, it may be insufficient to quell anti-Western militancy if it is not accompanied my more thorough reconsiderations of America’s role in the region.

Given these oversights, the abiding appeal of al Qaeda’s ideology and doctrine is understandable. The more controversial components of America’s Middle East policy and the resentment it engenders have proved to be invaluable assets for Islamist ideologues intent on inciting violence against the West. If policymakers persist in neglecting this vulnerability, prospective jihadists will remain responsive to al Qaeda’s propaganda and the U.S. will continue to reside in their crosshairs. Striking American targets remains a top priority for some of the most lethal terrorist affiliates including: al Qaeda Central, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Jabhat al-Nusrah, as well as their so-called Khorasan subgroup.[xxiii]

Mitigating this hostility will not require a wholesale abandonment of the Arab and Islamic world by the U.S., but rather a careful recalibration of its regional policies. Instead of abruptly severing ties and suspending all forms of aid to Riyadh and Cairo, for example, Washington could use its influence to encourage domestic reforms that would, over time, mitigate animosity towards the regimes, and by extension, the West.[xxiv] Concerning Israel, it would behoove the U.S. to oppose, or at the very least not endorse, Israeli settlements, blockades, military incursions and other controversial actions in the Palestinian territories, as well as to assume a dispassionate approach to any future negotiations aimed at producing a two-state solution. However, the most significant step the U.S. can take is to avoid overreactions to jihadist provocations that involve large scale military deployments in the region. No matter how benevolent the intention may be, military interventions and the collateral damage that inevitably accompanies them are among the most potent recruitment tools for militants. Two of the Charlie Hebdo attackers, Sharif and Said Kouachi, for instance, insist that images of the U.S. war in Iraq are what initially led them down the path of radicalization.[xxv] This is not to say force should never be employed. Strong moral and practical cases can be made for disrupting terrorist safe havens and blunting the advances of organizations like the Islamic State. However, the utmost concern should be displayed for minimizing civilian casualties and relying on foreign ground troops as little as possible.[xxvi] Moreover, it must be emphasized that while occasionally necessary, force alone, will prove insufficient for the long run. The backlash stimulated by endorsing “apostate” regimes, reflexively backing Jerusalem and conducting heavy-handed interventions will be more than adequate to recruit replacements for any casualties inflicted by the U.S. and its allies. Unless Washington revises its most contentious policies or finds a way to counter Islamist’s exploitation of them, the conflict is likely to endure indefinitely.


[i]Balazs Koranyi & David Mardiste, “Obama says will ‘Degrade and Destroy’ Islamic State,” Reuters, 3 Sept., 2014. The term “offshoot” is used to describe the Islamic State as they are no longer affiliated with or subordinate to the leadership of al Qaeda Central under Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is largely an outgrowth of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) whose leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi was succeeded by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Tensions between Zawahiri and Baghdadi came to a head over the latter’s insistence on conducting operations in Syria, where Zawahiri wanted Jabhat al-Nusrah to retain exclusive control of al Qaeda activities.

[ii][ii]The “War on Terror” it generally thought of as commencing on September 11, 2001. However, al Qaeda’s official inception dates back to September 10, 1988 and they conducted anti-American attacks throughout the 1990’s. Thus the conflict could be considered several decades old by this point. See Peter Bergen, The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and al Qaeda, (New York: Free Press, 2011) 18.

[iii]The geographic expansion of these organizations can largely be explained in terms of their skillful exploitation of civil strife and security vacuums in weak states and vulnerable regions. Al Qaeda in Iraq and now the Islamic State, for instance, have repeatedly gained ground within Iraq’s Sunni community by marketing themselves as necessary allies against the Shiite government. See:Eric M. Tope, “Understanding al Qaeda’s Revival in Iraq,” International Security Observer, 22 January, 2014.  However, the focus of this essay is the enduring appeal of al Qaeda’s anti-Western doctrine that continues to inspire attacks against American and Western interests.

[iv] Abdullah Azzam was a Palestinian scholar, cleric and militant activist who served as Osama Bin Laden’s mentor in the 1980’s. His primary concerns were liberating Palestine and Afghanistan―following the Soviet invasion. In 1984 Azzam wrote, “We have to concentrate our efforts on Afghanistan and Palestine now, because they have become our foremost problems.” See: Peter Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I Know: an Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader, (New York: Free Press, 2006) 27. For an overview of Ayman al Zawahiri’s activities against the Egyptian regime see: Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9-11, (New York: Vintage Books, 2006) 38-68.

[v] Bin Laden’s emphasis on the West as the main enemy was based on his belief that once the “head of the snake” (America) was cutoff, the Arab regimes he viewed as corrupt would be weakened to such an extent that they would collapse or be susceptible to overthrow by the mujahideen. In bin Laden’s words, “if the United States is beheaded, the Arab Kingdoms will wither away.” See: Michael Scheuer, Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America, (Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, 2006) 49.

[vi] Michael Scheuer, Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, (Washington D.C.: Potomac Books Inc., 2005) 212.

[vii] “I will ask the American people,” bin Laden explained, “to check the anti-Muslim policies of their government…The American people should prevent the killing of Muslims by their government.” Quoted in: Michael Scheuer, Imperial Hubris, 157.

[viii] Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, 225 & 360. In addition to the embassy attacks and the USS Cole bombing, al Qaeda took credit for training and assisting fighters in Mogadishu, Somalia in their battle against American troops in 1993 as well as the attack on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996. However, the extent of the organization’s involvement in these operations is disputed. See: Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, 279.

[ix] In 1996 al Qaeda tendered the “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Two Holy Places, “ which was supplemented by  the “Statement by the World Islamic Front: Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders” in 1998. Lengthy excerpts of these can be found in: Christopher Catherwood, A Brief History of the Middle East, (Philadelphia PA: Running Press, 2007) 255-258.

[x] For an account of the investigation of the embassy attacks see: Gary Berntsen, Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, (New York: Crown Publisher, 2005) 1-27. The cruise missile strikes are addressed in: Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, 319-321.

[xi]Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, 3, 230-33.

[xii] The barrage of cruise missiles inflicted negligible damage on al Qaeda assets, and according the former head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit―Dr. Michael Scheuer―the administration made little use of the intelligence it was provided on the fugitive’s movements and activities. ByScheuer’s account, Clinton was presented with ten separate opportunities to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, on all of which he declined to act insisting the intelligence was not adequately actionable. See: Michael F. Scheuer, Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq, (New York: Free Press, 2008) 55-96.

[xiii] Clinton’s regional policy was dubbed “dual containment,” which called for containing both Iraq and Iran simultaneously as they were both viewed as the primary threats to stability in the region. Stationing large numbers of American forces in the region was a key component of the strategy. Concerning Palestinian statehood, two major attempts to break the impasse took place under Clinton: the 1993 Oslo Accords and the Camp David negotiations of 1999-2000. American participants in both rounds of talks described the administration’s approach as excessively pro-Israel. One U.S. official recalled that, “we acted…as Israel’s lawyer.” For a discussion of Clinton’s Middle East and Israeli policies see:  John J. Mearshimer& Steven M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007) 47-48, 258. Military operations in Somalia and Serbia were motivated by humanitarian concerns, but bin Laden still effectively exploited them for propaganda purposes. See: Michael Scheuer, Through Our Enemies’ Eyes, 48.

[xiv] Condoleezza Rice, interview with Judy Woodruff, Interview with Condoleezza Rice, Bloomberg T.V., July 5, 2008.

[xv] In his memoir, for Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet writes that, “The United States did not go to war in Iraq solely because of WMD. In my view I doubt it was even the principal cause.” The genuine motive, Tenet continues, was “the administration’s largely unarticulated view that the democratic transformation of the Middle East through regime change in Iraq would be worth the price.” See: George Tenet, At the Center of the Storm, (New York: Harper Collins, 2007) 321.

[xvi] For a good overview of the Bush doctrine See: Jonathan Monten, “The Roots of the Bush Doctrine,” International Security, (Spring 2005): 112.

[xvii]Interestingly, it appears as though Bush did initially question the merit of existing Middle East policy. In 2002, he briefly sought to curtail anti-American sentiment by criticizing Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories and became the first American president to officially endorse the creation of a Palestinian state. However, this was short-lived and the administration eventually reverted back to a reflexively pro-Israel posture, which was most evident by its support for Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon, an incursion widely denounced by the international community. See: John Mearshimer and Steven Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, 204. Additionally, U.S. relations with authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt remained largely unchanged, and diplomatic support was lent to China and Russia, among others, concerning security operations against dissident Muslim populations. See Michael Scheuer, Marching Toward Hell, 230-231.

[xviii] Brian Knowlton, “Bush Makes Public Parts of Report on Terrorism,” International Herald Tribune, 26 September, 2006.

[xix] Since taking office Barack Obama has overseen approximately 500 confirmed drone strikes which have killed roughly 2,500 individuals. This has been a sharp increase from the Bush administration’s use of the practice. See: Jack Serle, “Almost 2,500 Now Killed by Covert Drone Strikes Since Obama Inauguration Six Years Ago,” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 2 February, 2015.

[xx] Martin S. Indyk, Kenneth G. Lieberthal, and Michael E. O’Hanlon, “Scoring Obama’s Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs, (May/June 2012) 29-43.

[xxi] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/29/us/politics/transcript-of-president-obamas-commencement-address-at-west-point.html?_r=0

[xxii] Obama has arguably maintained a critical approach to Israeli behavior in the Palestinian territories, but the U.S. government as a whole, particularly congress, remains sympathetic to Jerusalem. This was demonstrated by the support from various American legislators for Israel’s most recent military activities in Gaza. See: “Sen. Lindsay Graham on Meet the Press: Israel Should Continue Ground Offensive in Gaza as Long as it Takes to Deal with ‘the Viper’s Nest—Hamas,” Before It’s News, 20 July, 2014. Concerning Egypt, many viewed the replacement of Mohamed Morsi with General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi as a return of military-style dictatorship. See: Patrick Kingsley, “Worse Than the Dictators: Egypt’s Leaders Bring Pillars of Freedom Crashing Down,” The Guardian, 26 December, 2014.

[xxiii] Official branches of al Qaeda must be cleared by the organization’s central leadership to conduct external operations outside of their respective sanctuaries. Al Qaeda Central, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Khorasan have such authorization. Khorasan is not actually a separate organization from Jabat al Nusra—the group’s official Syrian affiliate—but rather a subgroup of veteran jihadists who have been tasked with overseeing external operations orchestrated from Syria. Khorasan is a name ascribed to the group by Western policymakers and not a moniker used by the group’s members. See: Sam Heller, Interview by Karl Morand, Middle East Week Podcast—Jabaht al Nusrah: Infighting and Evolving Strategy, 29 December, 2014.

[xxiv] Washington’s provision of foreign aid has given it substantial influence over Egypt’s behavior in the past, See: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics, (New York: Public Affairs, 2011) 171-172.

[xxv] Juan Cole, “Paris Terrorist was Radicalized by Bush’s War, Abu Ghraib Torture,” Informed Comment, 8 January, 2015.

[xxvi] Edward Dark, “U.S. Strikes in Syria Won’t Turn Locals Against Islamic State,” Al Monitor, 16 September, 2014.

Photo credit: HO/Scanpix 2011

About Author

Eric M. Tope

Eric M. Tope is contributor at the International Security Observer. Eric holds a B.A. in History and an M.A. in Political Science with a focus on International Relations from Arizona State University, where he completed his master’s thesis, “Collective Action in Counterinsurgency”. He primarily writes on Middle Eastern security affairs including: terrorism, counterinsurgency and American foreign policy in the region. His work has also appeared in Counterterrorist Trends, Analysis and Foreign Policy Journal, Small Wars Journal and Think South Asia. Eric is a native English speaker, but is conversational in Spanish and Classical Arabic.

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