The Guardian, not known for its support of the war in Iraq or the Bush administration’s policies there, admits two crucial points today: al-Qaeda has lost Iraq, and the surge of American troops provided the means for their defeat. The paper couches this in fears of a new front for AQ, in reality the potential on two existing fronts, but cannot escape the conclusion that the forward strategy against the terrorist network in both Iraq and Afghanistan has worked:
Evidence of al-Qaida’s problems in Iraq is weighty and convincing. It has been badly hit by the fightback from the American-backed Sunni “Sons of Iraq” and the US troop “surge”. Western intelligence agencies estimate that the number of foreign fighters is down to single figures each month. The border with Syria is now harder to cross.
Iraq-watchers point, too, to financial strain caused by the arrests of al-Qaida sympathisers in Saudi Arabia, mafia-like disputes over alcohol licences and difficulties recruiting the right calibre of people. Last month, a sympathetic website carried a study showing a 94% decline in operations over a year. The Islamic State of Iraq claimed 334 operations in November 2006 but just 25 a year later. Attacks dropped from 292 in May 2007 to 16 by mid-May this year.
Dia Rashwan, an Egyptian expert on radical Islamists, says recent al-Qaida propaganda footage from Iraq is old and cannot mask the crisis it is facing. “They have not got new things to say about Iraq though they are trying to give the impression that they are still alive. The material isn’t convincing.” Nigel Inkster, former deputy head of MI6, now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, agrees: “Al-Qaida is starting to prepare their people for strategic failure in Iraq.”
Al-Qaida is also perceived as being “on the back foot” because of attacks by Muslim clerics on its takfiri ideology and revulsion at the killing of innocent Muslims. Participants in Zawahiri’s recent “open dialogue” on Islamist websites compared al-Qaida’s performance unfavourably with the successes of Hamas in Palestine and Hizbullah in Lebanon.
Challenges to the use of violence by Sayid Imam al-Sharif, founder of the Egyptian Jihad group, have rattled his old colleague Zawahiri, says Rashwan. Influential Saudi clerics have helped undercut al-Qaida’s theological arguments. How far such rarified debates affect radicalised Muslim youth in Bradford or Madrid is a different question.
Our success has not been limited to Iraq, either. Afghanistan’s situation has improved in large measure because of the aggressive new tactics adopted at about the same time as the surge in Iraq. The use of close air support to chase down Taliban ambush teams has decimated their forces and kept them from launching their traditional offensives against NATO the last two springs. Predator drones find senior leadership in Pakistan more often, and with more devastating results.
The “new fronts” that concern the Guardian are in Algeria, Yemen, and Somalia. None of these are new in any sense. Algeria had the GPSC for decades, fighting the radical Islamist cause, and they aligned themselves with AQ years ago. Yemen has also been a problem for years; the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 predating 9/11 and our forward strategy.
Somalia has likewise presented a problem, perhaps the earliest manifestation of Islamist terrorism as directed against the West. It also serves as an example of why we need to remain in Iraq until we have ensured the stability of the government. If we pull out too quickly, Iraq could become a failed state, similar to Somalia but with much greater strategic dangers. A failed Iraq run by warlords and terrorist groups would have massive resources in oil to fund their operations directly. The West cannot afford a Somalia-on-the-Euphrates.
At the end, the Guardian quotes an expert claiming that AQ will rebuild if the next American administration follows the Bush policies in the Middle East. From the evidence, we can see that the opposite is true. AQ has suffered severe blows in the last two years, and the proper conclusion is that we should continue to do what works.