If we’re careful, Al Qaeda may self-destruct

If we’re careful, Al Qaeda may self-destruct

By Rich Barlow | December 13, 2008 Source

John McCain called « the war on terror » one of the « the transcendent issues » of our time on the television show « Meet The Press » three years ago, a message he repeated throughout his run for president. Journalists and other politicians have echoed his point, which resonates all the more amid the smoke and blood of Mumbai.

So a suggestion that the poster group for terror, Al Qaeda, is likely to be destroyed by Al Qaeda itself may seem counter-intuitive.

Yet a Kennedy School research fellow made just that case last week. Nelly Lahoud raised the possibility that a transcendent issue of our time could end as a transcendent fizzle, gagging on the religious certitude that feeds the terrorists’ taste for violence.

« Will Al Qaeda self-destruct? » Lahoud told almost 30 people crowded around a seminar table in a room at Harvard Divinity School. « This can only be speculative, [but] I can’t see it sustaining itself. »

A political scientist who was born and raised in Beirut and got her doctorate in Australia, she is writing a book on the religious philosophy undergirding jihadism.

She acknowledged that political circumstances are a factor, as well as religion, with terrorist leaders’ extreme outlooks honed under years of imprisonment and torture by repressive regimes, including Egypt’s.

Still, Lahoud found parallels between modern jihadis and first-century Kharijites, Islamic zealots who fought bloody rebellions to purify Islam according to their standards.

The Kharijites’ fevered ideology ultimately led them to turn on each other, and their philosophical descendants today could go the same route, Lahoud argued. They embrace a narrow definition of jihad as involving fighting and increasingly are killing other Muslims.

During an online conference this year, Lahoud said, the Al Qaeda tactician Ayman al-Zawahiri was challenged by several questioners, one of whom demanded, « Who is it who is killing, with Your Excellency’s blessing, the innocents in Baghdad, Morocco, and Algeria? Do you consider the killing of women and children to be jihad? »

Terrorism’s nasty business also draws recruits with criminal records and « questionable characters, » Lahoud said, with some people undertaking jihad « because they either wanted to redeem themselves or had nothing better to do. » Many are ignorant of religion and lacking knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence, a deficiency bemoaned by other jihadis.

Not all of her listeners were convinced.

« I’m not sure that Al Qaeda will self-destruct, » said Jocelyne Cesari, director of Harvard’s Islam in the West Program. Al Qaeda has demonstrated a talent for shape-shifting to accommodate new circumstances, and the jihadis’ emphasis on individual action, free of the need for religious leaders’ sanction, gives it an autonomy, she said. « You can be an individual jihadi . . . and you don’t need the closed niche of social relationships to exist. »

Lahoud, however, is not alone in her thinking. The New York Times reported last month that a study by US intelligence agencies suggested that Al Qaeda could wither sooner rather than later because of « unachievable strategic objectives, inability to attract broad-based support, and self-destructive actions. »

The analysts pointed to polls showing Muslim support for the group dropping after mass killings and Al Qaeda’s failure to focus on poverty in Islamic nations.

Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, suggested in a column this fall that terrorism’s threat is overblown. He cited a scholarly study showing that casualties from terrorist acts have dropped since 9/11. It also shows voting results in Muslim countries that turned against religious fundamentalists, he said.

Neither Zakaria nor the intelligence report suggested complacency. The report said that Al Qaeda remains potent in Pakistan’s tribal regions. And terrorism’s decentralization and numerous free agents make battling it like punching sand. American and Indian intelligence officials have fingered Pakistani extremists, at least one of them affiliated with a group called Lashkar-e-Taiba, for butchering 173 in Mumbai.

On the other hand, Iraq’s Anbar Province, once given up as irretrievably lost by the US military, flipped to America’s side last year after some Sunni Muslims there concluded that Al Qaeda was a dangerous « religious-based cult, » journalist and former Marine Bing West told the PBS News Hour.

If there’s anything to Lahoud’s thesis, a woman in the audience asked, then what policy should the United States pursue to make it reality?

« I’m a political theorist; I don’t advise governments, » Lahoud began. But she suggested that, while always defending ourselves against attack, we should be careful about opening military fronts against terrorism that jihadists can then use to recruit new killers. « The seed to self-destruct is there, » she said. « They’ll do a much better job than a war on terror. »