Bruce Riedel rightly faults the U.S. for not meeting the ideological challenge that groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State pose, but then he advocates nothing new. Instead, he offers essentially what mainstream analysts on both the Left and the Right have advocated for years: establishing a State of Palestine, supporting “reform and justice” in Muslim countries, and working to end Sunni-Shi’ite sectarianism.
The problem is that these are solutions that have been tried, and they failed abysmally. Riedel is correct that the U.S. hasn’t countered the ideology of jihad groups, but he shows no sign of knowing what that ideology really is. In fact, he demonstrates that he shares the same false premises that have led the U.S. government to its abysmal failure in this regard. Both assume that the appeal to Muslims of the stated goals and motivations of jihad groups — establishment of the caliphate, destruction of non-Sharia regimes, and ultimately global Islamic dominance — can be blunted, if not extinguished altogether, by essentially giving jihadis and Islamic supremacists some of what they want. They assume that in that event, the larger aggregate of Muslims will respond the way Westerners in secular democracies would respond: by accepting the compromise and rejecting more extreme solutions.
We have the record of the last thirteen years and more to show that this assumption is false: it has been tried again and again, and it has never worked. More below on Riedel’s specific recommendations:
“Why’s Al Qaeda So Strong? Washington Has (Literally) No idea,” by Bruce Riedel, Daily Beast, November 9, 2014:
…And, yes, we have tried to counter the extremists’ ideology, but only very weakly.
At the core of al Qaeda’s narrative is the message that Islam is under siege by a ‘Zionist Crusader’ conspiracy. Osama bin Laden, Ayman Zawahiri and Abu Musab al Zarqawi, founding fathers of today’s threat, all pointed to Israel as the premier example of the danger America allegedly poses to Islam. It has always given them their favorite recruiting tools. The three Gaza wars have been used by al Qaeda to galvanize anti -American hatred. On this front we are not just losing the battle of narratives, we are barely engaged in it.
To counter that narrative the United States and the international community argue in favor of a two-state solution and a just peace for both Israel and Palestine. That won’t change al Qaeda’s goal, which is Israel’s destruction, but would severely undermine its appeal and over time dry up its base. The two-state solution, if implemented, fundamentally discredits the whole concept of a conspiracy against Islam.
Unfortunately, for six years the Obama team has tried to push the two-state solution without any success. It rightly blames both Israeli and Palestinian intransigence for its failure. But the core issue is Israel’s refusal to end the occupation of the West Bank. There the problem is that the goal of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s team is to perpetuate the occupation, not to end it. They want a larger Israeli footprint in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Bibi’s grudging support for a two-state solution is rhetorical at best; much of the Israeli right does not even pretend to support a Palestinian state. The increasing tension between Obama’s team and Bibi’s reflects this basic divergence in interests. It will get worse. Rising tensions in Jerusalem will spur jihadist recruitment.
One word exposes the falsity of this analysis: Gaza. Anyone who still thinks after the Gaza withdrawal that a Palestinian state would bring peace between Israel and the “Palestinians” (and yes, I know they are legion, and in both parties, and in all the corridors of power in the U.S. and Europe) hasn’t been paying attention. We were told in 2005 that “occupation” was the problem, and if Israel withdrew from Gaza, the Gazans would turn to peaceful pursuits. Only a few people, including me, warned that Gaza would just become a jihad base for newly virulent attacks against Israel. Events proved us correct.
Now Riedel wants Israel to withdraw from Judea and Samaria, aka the West Bank, and assures us that this withdrawal from this “occupation” is really the one that will finally bring peace and take the wind out of the jihadis’ sails. A Palestinian state, he says, will “severely undermine” al-Qaeda’s appeal “and over time dry up its base” — and he claims this even after acknowledging that “Israel’s destruction” is al-Qaeda’s goal. Why would the establishment of a Palestinian state now, after the Arab Muslims rejected it in 1948 and the “Palestinians” rejected it in 2000 (and other times) bring peace when the goal of Israel’s total destruction, which Hamas has repeatedly and recently reiterated, would remain? Why would another Israeli withdrawal accomplish what earlier Israeli withdrawals — not just from Gaza, but also from Sinai and southern Lebanon — did not?
Riedel doesn’t consider these questions. He can’t, because any honest answer would show his analysis to be false and based on wishful thinking.
Then Riedel goes on to advocate another failed remedy:
The Syrian conflict, meanwhile, holds a special ideological allure for the extremists because it is on the doorstep of Israel and Jerusalem. Under the self-declared Islamic State caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the war has attracted thousands of foreign fighters in a fight against all who fail to follow their interpretation of Sunni Islam. That includes savage Alawite-controlled regime of Bashar Assad, but also Christians, Yazidis or fellow Sunnis who dare to oppose al Baghdadi’s diktats. Among those foreign fighters in Syria are many potential recruits for terror in the West. Indeed, the old al Qaeda leadership created a cell inside the Nusra Front group for just that purpose, and this so-called Khorasan group is a very dangerous threat.
The extremists’ narrative argues that only violent jihad can bring about change and justice in the Islamic world. They argue the Arab spring proves that peaceful protests and demonstrations, elections and democratic change don’t work in Arabia and the world of Islam. The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt is cited as evidence that “moderate” Islam is too weak to fight the Zionist-Crusader conspiracy and it’s [sic] Quisling allies like Saudi Arabia and the Egyptian army.
Washington and other Western capitals recognize that their old goal of promoting stability in the Islamic world at any price is illusory. The police state system that propped up dictators from Algiers to Islamabad for decades was unsustainable. Trying to put it back together again, as the Saudis and other counter-revolutionaries would like, is a fool’s errand. It may buy time but it won’t work. The Arab spring failed, but it demonstrated the ancient regimes are doomed unless they change profoundly, which is very unlikely.
Chaos and failed states, not democracy, are what the foreseeable future holds for Arabia. But a Western policy that is blind to the urgent need for reform and justice is certain to end in catastrophe. More immediately, it cedes the ideological battle to al Qaeda’s simple solution that only jihad brings change. Close attachment to autocratic regimes by the West pays short-term dividends but will antagonize generations of Muslims.
This was precisely the Obama Administration’s policy when it turned against Mubarak and warmly endorsed the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt. This was the analysis Obama was following when he aided the Libyan jihadis against Gaddafi and the Syrian jihadis against Assad (although in the latter case the rise of the Islamic State has exposed his Syria policy as confused and incoherent).
Riedel mentions the fall of the Ikhwan regime in Egypt as part of the jihadis’ recruitment rhetoric, but he misses its real import: when the U.S. followed his recommendations and stopped backing dictators in Muslim countries, favoring instead popular revolutionaries and the “democratic process,” the result was not stability and the weakening of jihad groups, but chaos and anarchy in Libya, unrest and instability in Egypt, and the strengthening of jihad groups the world over. The Brotherhood regime in Egypt fell because many secular Muslims don’t want to live under Sharia oppression. However, Sharia advocates are numerous in Egypt and other Muslim countries — so the result of backing “democracy” in Egypt and other Muslim countries was not the establishment of peaceful, stable Sharia regimes (which would not be a desirable outcome anyway, cf. Saudi Arabia and Iran), but more violence. The dictators were bloody and reprehensible; the “democratic process” in all too many Muslim countries has resulted in regimes that are scarcely less bloody and far less stable.
Nonetheless, Riedel says, “Full speed ahead.” What would he say if there were a free election in Iraq and Syria now and the Islamic State won, or even got a significant percentage of the vote? He seems to assume, as George W. Bush and so many others assumed, that elections in Muslim countries would lead to the establishment of pro-Western, secular, stable republics. It has never happened. Why will it happen next time?
The extremist message also encourages sectarianism and intolerance. The Shia are portrayed as false Muslims and brutally attacked to encourage Sunni-Shia hatred. Sectarian strife now empowers the civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and Al Qaedaism flourishes in the chaos. The West says far too little about the cancer of sectarianism….
Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this about it in 2007: “There’s still a tendency to see these things in Sunni-Shia terms. But the Middle East is going to have to overcome that.” The Bush Administration tried in numerous ways to help them overcome it in Iraq. It held one-person, one-vote elections that resulted in a Shi’ite regime in Baghdad — an outcome that was absolutely predictable, since Shi’ites are a majority in Iraq. That regime was supposed to include Sunnis. It was absolutely predictable also that it did not manage to do so, both because it didn’t want to and Sunnis didn’t want to participate anyway.
The Sunni-Shi’ite divide is 1,400 years old. The history of Islam is filled with occasions when it erupted into violence. The idea that the non-Muslim West can heal this or should even try to do so is as hubristic as it is myopic, and shows that Riedel (and Condoleezza Rice, and myriad others) have no idea of the history or beliefs of either group.
That is no surprise. The real reason why the U.S. and the West in general hasn’t confronted the ideology of jihad groups is because they refuse to admit that it even exists. They insist that Islam is peaceful and that groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have nothing to do with Islam. They don’t have any curiosity about how this supposed misunderstanding of Islam came to be so widespread and powerful, and they have never pressed Muslim groups that ostensibly reject it to do anything to blunt its appeal for young Muslims.
So Riedel is right: Washington has no idea why al-Qaeda is so strong. Neither does he. And here’s why: Bruce Riedel is senior fellow and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project. Brookings is a Qatar-funded group that publishes justifications for jihad terror and gives jihad terror supporters and enablers access to the world’s most powerful people. It also is strongly pro-Hamas and anti-Israel. This article is just another small contribution to its larger goals.