Understanding Al-Qaeda

By: Greg C. Reeson

The recent release of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) asserting that al-Qaeda has regrouped in Pakistan has resulted in a significant amount of debate about the Global War on Terror and the efforts the United States is undertaking in its prosecution of that war. While congressmen, media pundits, military analysts and others weigh-in with their respective opinions, it is important to accurately define al-Qaeda and remind Americans of the goals sought by the group’s members.

The al-Qaeda that most people think of is the al-Qaeda of Usama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the group that hijacked four American airliners and crashed three of them into the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon. But this is not the al-Qaeda that is most dangerous to the United States today. Bin Laden, if he is even alive at this point, is incapable of posing a direct threat to the American homeland because the offensive nature of the war on terror has kept him and Zawahiri on the run and looking over their shoulders, while many of al-Qaeda’s top lieutenants have been either killed or captured. The original al-Qaeda that declared war on the United States, many years before Americans even acknowledged the threat posed by the group, is in disarray and unable at the moment to execute an attack equal in scale or grandeur to the attacks of September 11, 2001. While it would indeed be gratifying to see bin Laden brought to justice for his crimes, his death or capture would do little to help the United States in its fight against terrorism.

The real threat is instead posed by the al-Qaeda that has taken shape since the attacks that prompted our incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq . The new al-Qaeda consists of a multitude of terrorist organizations, some new and some old, which have either been inspired by bin Laden and Zawahiri or have publicly declared their allegiance to the original terrorist group. It is through these groups, which are operating in all corners of the globe, that the ideology of the old al-Qaeda continues to live. To focus on any one organization, whether it be bin Laden’s original “Base,” Abu Musab al-Zarqawis’s al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Pakistani elements mentioned in the NIE, or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is to miss the fundamental reality that we are fighting a radical ideology hell bent on destroying our way of life in its pursuit of Islamic domination of the world.

In a February 1998 “Jihad against Jews and Crusaders” statement, bin Laden, Zawahiri, and other leaders of the original al-Qaeda called on Muslims “…to kill the Americans and their allies-civilian and military…” to force an American withdrawal from the Middle East. In 2002, bin Laden wrote a letter to the American people in which he instructed them to embrace Islam and get out of the Middle East’s holy lands. Then in 2005, coalition forces in Iraq captured a letter purported to be from Zawahiri to al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Zarqawi that explained al-Qaeda’s four stages of jihad: 1) expel the Americans from Iraq; 2) establish an Islamic emirate in Iraq and develop it into a caliphate; 3) extend the jihad to Iraq’s secular neighbors; and 4) the inevitable battle with Israel. With the domination of the Middle East complete, radical elements would be in a much stronger position from which to spread their virulent form of Islam.

It is this fanatical ideology, promulgated by the original al-Qaeda, that has been embraced by violent groups the world over. Across the globe, elements inspired by bin Laden’s al-Qaeda have taken up his cause. It is against these elements, and their strict adherence to a radical form of Islam, that we are now fighting, and it is the ideology that binds the al-Qaedas, new and old, together. Our enemies believe that they are executing God’s will, and that those who oppose them also oppose God. Negotiations and dialogue are meaningless because any sort of compromise or understanding would be in conflict with what they believe to be the wishes of God. They cannot be reasoned with; they can only be killed.

Many in this country are demanding that we withdraw our troops from Iraq. Some have suggested that we should put our focus back on Afghanistan and those who attacked us on 9/11. Both of these arguments demonstrate a genuine lack of understanding not only about our enemy, but about the threats we face.

An Iraq pullout would signify the accomplishment of al-Qaeda’s first stage in the quest for global domination, the expulsion of the Americans from the Land of the Two Rivers. New al-Qaeda groups on every continent would be emboldened by the victory, and would likely attempt to seize the opportunity to step up efforts in their particular areas of operation. At least part of Iraq would, in all likelihood, become a safe haven for al-Qaeda elements to move to stage two, the establishment of an Islamic emirate from which the extension of jihad could be launched, pushing al-Qaeda’s plan to its third stage. Similarly, a focus on bin Laden and Afghanistan ignores the devolution of al-Qaeda from its original form into a decentralized, cellular organization that operates largely independently of the core leadership. While we focused our attention on the remnants of al-Qaeda and Taliban elements in Afghanistan, countries like Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia would be fighting for their very survival.

The debate over Iraq and the war on terror can easily become inflamed by personal passions. Amid all the partisan rhetoric emanating from both sides of the political aisle, though, it is important to remember that what we are fighting is not Islam, or bin Laden, or the al-Qaeda that attacked us on 9/11, but a radical ideology that seeks nothing less than global domination.

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