It’s an ancient lesson that for every warrior/gangster/terrorist the good guys kill, five more step up to fill the void. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi gets killed but Al Qaeda in Iraq persists. Don Corleone dies at the end of “Godfather,” and his son Michael steps up to lead the family in two subsequent movies. You’d think all of our foreign-policy geniuses in Washington would be aware of this. Most people are.
The War on Terror has, in seven years, cost $527 billion and 4,587 lives (and could grow to much more). But the answer to Islamic extremism lies not just in firepower but, as President Bush’s loyalists used to say, winning hearts and minds. This doesn’t seem to be happening en mass, but the New York Times recently had an article about the de-radicalization of younger Iraqis and some outside jihad leaders have turned against the ideology, as detailed in this New Republic article about Noman Benotman, a former leader of the militant Libyan Islamic Fighting Group:
Although Benotman’s public rebuke of Al Qaeda went unnoticed in the United States, it received wide attention in the Arabic press. In repudiating Al Qaeda, Benotman was adding his voice to a rising tide of anger in the Islamic world toward Al Qaeda and its affiliates, whose victims since September 11 have mostly been fellow Muslims. Significantly, he was also joining a larger group of religious scholars, former fighters, and militants who had once had great influence over Al Qaeda’s leaders, and who—alarmed by the targeting of civilians in the West, the senseless killings in Muslim countries, and Al Qaeda’s barbaric tactics in Iraq—have turned against the organization, many just in the past year.
After September 11, there was considerable fear in the West that we were headed for a clash of civilizations with the Muslim world led by bin Laden, who would entice masses of young Muslims into his jihadist movement. But the religious leaders and former militants who are now critiquing Al Qaeda’s terrorist campaign—both in the Middle East and in Muslim enclaves in the West—make that less likely. The potential repercussions for Al Qaeda cannot be underestimated because, unlike most mainstream Muslim leaders, Al Qaeda’s new critics have the jihadist credentials to make their criticisms bite. “The starting point has to be that jihad is legitimate, otherwise no one will listen, ” says Benotman, who sees the Iraqi insurgency as a legitimate jihad. “The reaction [to my criticism of Al Qaeda] has been beyond imagination. It has made the radicals very angry. They are very shaky about it.”
A week before this article appeared, Lawrence Wright, who won a Pulitzer for “The Looming Tower” and has a more intimate knowledge of Al Qaeda than any other American journalist, wrote a very long piece for The New Yorker about Al Qaeda’s inner rebellion.
I don’t want to be overly optimistic, or pessimistic, but these are positive developments. Still, they are incredibly limited in their scale and need to be reproduced over and over to cause significant change.
Previously on the subject of jihad: