President Bush and his senior aides seem to have a good grasp of the threats still posed by Al Qaeda. However, they lack a nuanced understanding of this radical fringe's appeal to alienated young Muslim men who increasingly may be acting on their own. The White House, instead of preparing for war with Iraq, should be seeking creative strategies to decrease the pool of recruits and block further inroads into the world of Islam by the militants.
Connecting the Bali nightclub massacre to an attack on American troops in Kuwait and the bombing of a French oil tanker off Yemen, Bush said earlier this month that "it is going to take a while to fully rout Al Qaeda. We just learned a lesson.... It's going to take a while to succeed."
In recent testimony before a congressional panel, CIA Director George J. Tenet emphasized that Al Qaeda was still capable of planning and carrying out attacks in multiple theaters of operation.
Al Qaeda's senior leaders, though weakened and on the run, survived the first phase of the war in Afghanistan. They have succeeded not only in motivating hardened foot soldiers but in inspiring sympathizers to launch independent terror attacks, sowing fear and inflicting economic damage. Al Qaeda's strategy seems to aim at affirming its existence and defying the U.S.
For example, a recent audiotape by Osama Bin Laden's closest lieutenant, Ayman Zawahiri, assumed responsibility for suicide bombings against French engineers in Pakistan and German tourists in Tunisia. While Zawahiri also praised "holy warriors" for the attack on the French oil tanker and gun battles with U.S. Marines in Kuwait, he did not accept direct responsibility in Al Qaeda's name.
This post-9/11 campaign relies on small-scale, decentralized operations and aims mainly at "soft" nonmilitary targets. Deadly and effective, these operations are easier to plan and carry out than were the complex, spectacular World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks and the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa. They also do not require as much supervision by Al Qaeda's surviving leadership and depend largely on the initiative of loyalists.
Young men who are unconnected to Al Qaeda but outraged by U.S. policies toward the Palestinians or Iraq can apparently be nudged by the inflammatory rhetoric of Al Qaeda leaders to pursue freelance terrorism and kill Westerners on their own, complicating and prolonging the U.S. war on terror. The assassination of a senior American diplomat in Jordan appears to fall into this freelance category.
The U.S. must take seriously the rage against U.S. foreign policies in the world of Islam. The festering Palestinian wound fuels anti-Americanism, as does the U.S. stand toward Iraq even as Washington maintains cozy relations with more pliant dictators. A U.S. invasion of Iraq, with large civilian casualties, would only make these young Muslims more inclined to join jihadi cells of the Al Qaeda variety.
Although most Arabs do not care for Saddam Hussein, neither do they buy the administration's attempt to link him with Al Qaeda. They know full well his brutal suppression of Muslim activists and the loathing that Bin Laden has for his secularism.
The dominant Arab-Muslim narrative stresses that an attack on Iraq would be designed to settle old scores and make Washington the arbiter of Arab destiny and resources, particularly oil. "This is a war against Islam and Muslims, not against terrorism," is the common complaint. U.S. unilateralism and insensitivity to Muslim concerns threaten to turn Bin Laden, alive or dead, into a martyr and rallying point for the dissatisfied.
Initially after 9/11, Bin Laden's politics of despair and suicide were discredited in Muslim eyes, thanks mainly to the administration's coalition-building and limited goals. Arrests of key Al Qaeda lieutenants in Pakistan, Morocco, Yemen, East Asia and Europe and the freezing of financial assets took their toll on the network. The most effective means of putting Al Qaeda out of business is to work more closely with European and Muslim allies to tackle the political and social roots of extremism.
To reach the large "floating middle" of Muslim society, the U.S. should pay more than lip service to the urgent tasks of peaceful resolution of international conflicts, to sustainable development and to a consistent, persuasive approach to human rights and liberty for all.