From Saturday’s Wall Street Journal:
Al Qaeda on the Run
May 31, 2008
A year ago in July, a National Intelligence Estimate warned that al Qaeda had "protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability," meaning it could be poised to strike America again. The political reaction was instantaneous and damning. "This clearly says al Qaeda is not beaten," said Michael Scheuer, the former CIA spook turned antiterror scold.
What a difference 10 months – and a surge – make.
CIA Director Michael Hayden painted a far more optimistic picture in an interview yesterday in the Washington Post. "On balance, we are doing pretty well," he said. "Near strategic defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq. Near strategic defeat for al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Significant setbacks for al Qaeda globally – and here I'm going to use the word 'ideologically' – as a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of Islam."
What happened? To certain sophisticates, this is all al Qaeda's doing: By launching suicide attacks on Shiite and even Sunni targets, and ruling barbarically wherever they took control, the group has worn out its welcome in the Muslim world.
There's some truth in this. The Sunni Awakening in Iraq was in part a reaction by local clan leaders against al Qaeda's efforts to subjugate and brutalize them. The Arab world took note when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi ordered the November 2005 bombing of three hotels in Amman, Jordan, in which nearly all of the victims were Sunni Arabs. Extremist Islamic parties took an electoral drubbing in Pakistan's elections earlier this year following a wave of suicide bombings, one of which murdered Benazir Bhutto.
It's also true that al Qaeda finds itself on the ideological backfoot, even in radical circles. As our Bret Stephens reported in March, Sayyed Imam, a founder of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and once a mentor to Ayman al Zawahiri, has written an influential manifesto sternly denouncing his former comrades for their methods and theology. This was enough to prompt a 215-page rebuttal from Zawahiri, who seems to have time on his hands. Lawrence Wright in the New Yorker and Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank in the New Republic have recently written about similar jihadist defections.
But the U.S. offensives in Afghanistan and especially Iraq deserve most of the credit. The destruction of the Taliban denied al Qaeda one sanctuary, and the U.S. seems to have picked up the pace of Predator strikes in Pakistan – or at least their success rate. This has damaged al Qaeda's freedom of movement and command-and-control.
As for Iraq, Zawahiri himself last month repeated his claim that the country "is now the most important arena in which our Muslim nation is waging the battle against the forces of the Crusader-Zionist campaign." So it's all the more significant that on this crucial battleground, al Qaeda has been decimated by the surge of U.S. forces into Baghdad. The surge, in turn, gave confidence to the Sunni tribes that this was a fight they could win. For Zawahiri, losing the battles you say you need to win is not a way to collect new recruits.
General Hayden was careful to say the threat continues, and he warned specifically about those in Congress and the media who "[focus] less on the threat and more on the tactics the nation has chosen to deal with the threat." This refers to the political campaign to restrict wiretapping and aggressive interrogation, both of which the CIA director says have been crucial to gathering intelligence that has blocked further terrorist spectaculars that would have burnished al Qaeda's prestige.
One irony here is that Barack Obama is promising a rapid withdrawal from Iraq on grounds that we can't defeat al Qaeda unless we focus on Afghanistan. He opposed the Iraq surge on similar grounds. Yet it is the surge, and the destruction of al Qaeda in Iraq, that has helped to demoralize al Qaeda around the world. Nothing would more embolden Zawahiri now than a U.S. retreat from Iraq, which al Qaeda would see as the U.S. version of the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan.
It is far too soon to declare victory over al Qaeda. Still, Mr. Hayden's upbeat assessment is encouraging, and it suggests that President Bush's strategy of taking the battle to the terrorists is making America safer.