On al Qaeda (October 2008)

Imagine you’re on youtube one day when you find an interview with John McCain in which he says he is going to tell Osama bin Laden how to defeat the United States once and for all. Imagine then that he goes on to outline one of the most thoughtful, original, articulate and ingenious pieces of anti-American strategic thinking which you have heard in a long time. For ninety minutes. You look at the date on the video and see it was made a year ago and you realise that somehow, the media hasn’t found it at all. How would you feel about it?

Well, the other day I found myself in pretty much exactly that situation – the other way round. I found this article by a top terrorism expert at West Point US Military Academy. In it, he explains, with a charming mixture of scholarly distance and unscholarly incredulity, that a top Al Qaeda leader called Abu Yahya al-Libi has made a video telling the USA how to beat it.

Like John McCain, Abu Yahya is a hardliner. Like John McCain, he speaks with the authority of combat experience. Like John McCain, he has been imprisoned and escaped, in his case, from the American Bagram prison in 2005. And whereas there’s a good chance that John McCain will be the next man to lead the global war on terror, there’s a good chance that Abu Yahya will be the next man to lead global terror; he has been called ‘the heir apparent to Osama bin Laden.’

So, what’s young Yahya’s advice? And perhaps more importantly, what the hell is he doing?

Well, he advises the USA and its allies to to use al Qaeda’s weaknesses against it. And its biggest weakness is that it has to persuade recruits to kill not just innocent people, but also themselves. However much potential radicals may hate the West and what it does in the Islamic world, persuading them to kill themselves will always be really hard. Of course, they justify it using a radical interpretation of Islam, which most Muslims disagree with. So Yahya recommends discrediting that interpretation, and the jihadis who use it.

He suggests sowing ‘seeds of doubt’ among radicals by making a big deal of senior ex-Jihadi scholars who retract their views. He argues that if the media interviewed them and reviewed their books prominently, it would be more credible than if governments did. He also suggests exaggerating jihadi tactical mistakes, like trying to attack the hajj pilgrimage, defaming it in the Muslim world, for example by alleging that they kill members who want to quit, and emphasising their internal disagreements. He also suggests that qualified theological teams help deradicalise jihadi prisoners, (which has worked in Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Singapore, and has now been adopted in Britain). All these ideas, you might notice, are either cheap or free.

But it’s the question of why he’s giving this advice at all that’s really interesting. The theory is that he feels safe to give this advice because he knows that America won’t take it, because it goes against the grain of how the Bush administration has conceived the war on terror.

The objective of most American policy is: killing Islamic terrorists. But the objective of most of Yahya’s advice is: making people not want to be Islamic terrorists. And in this, surely he’s absolutely right. In the short run, imprisoning terrorists, cutting off their money, and making sure they don’t have safe territory to work in will help. But in the long run, all those things will probably motivate more terrorists. That’s not a winning strategy.

Of course, the idea that the fight against Islamic terrorism is ultimately a war of ideas is old news. Lots of people have been saying it for years. What Abu Yahya adds is the insight that governments can’t win that battle, and shouldn’t directly try. They can’t persuade anyone that violent fundamentalist interpretations of Islam are wrong, because they’re not Islamic scholars. They’re not credible. It would be like having a propaganda campaign against the Ku Klux Klan organised by the Saudi royal family. They would shrug, at best.

His contribution is that the battle isn’t between a western ideology and theirs. It’s between an interpretation of Islam which justifies terror and one which condemns it. And if you were a young Muslim teenager leaning towards radicalism, you might be influenced by a respected religious scholar’s opinion. But George Bush? Not so much.

The really galling thing is that academics researching counterterrorism, policing, and deradicalisation now agree that the war of ideas is key. Every year we learn
more and more about how to reduce radicals’ motivation. So there’s really no excuse for governments to argue that traditional military operations will beat terrorism in the long-run. Decades from now, when the history of this period is written, the biggest question will be: if they wanted to tackle terrorism, why didn’t they use the best expertise they had – like Abu Yahya’s – about how to do it?