To some extent this is understandable wishful thinking. Americans as well as citizens of other nations badly want an end to their long struggle with al-Qaida and its barbaric partners. But just when Americans allow themselves a bit of optimism, they are pummeled by something like the September 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya; a reported plot to attack multiple U.S. embassies; or the assault on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, by al-Shabab, a Somali affiliate of al-Qaida.
When optimism is shattered, the normal response is anger, frustration and blaming those in charge. A perfect example is a Sept. 28 essay in the Economist, according to which "al-Qaida and its jihadist allies have staged an extraordinary comeback. The terrorist network now holds sway over more territory and is recruiting more fighters than at any time in its 25-year history." While the authors of the piece attribute al-Qaida’s return in part to "the poisoning of the Arab spring" and the Syrian conflict, they also blame "Western complacency," even lapsing into the old talk radio line about Obama being "too eager to cut and run from Iraq." While this quip is as nonsensical now as ever, it is troubling coming from a prestigious outlet like the Economist. It is a sign of a deep and persistent misunderstanding of the threat from violent Islamic extremism.
As security expert David Kilcullen first explained in 2004, al-Qaida is most accurately understood as a networked, transnational insurgency. Even after a decade of conflict between al-Qaida and the civilized world, there is much misunderstanding of the dynamics of insurgency.
For starters, when the United States becomes involved in counterinsurgency support, it is very difficult to convince the public and Congress that the threat is significant enough to justify the expenditure of money and even blood, but not so significant as to justify national mobilization and total war. Because Americans favor clarity and definitive solutions, this is always a hard sell. Political leaders try to walk this very fine line—note Obama's phrasing about al-Qaida being "on the path to defeat" rather than defeated—but it's not easy. When declining extremist movements and insurgencies lash out, as they often do, the result is public anger and frustration.
Second, insurgencies seldom end with a decisive outcome. More often they peter out over years and even decades. During their slow and protracted death, extremist movements can no longer mount major offensives and have little or no chance of seizing power. But they can launch spectacular terrorist attacks, because doing so does not require all that many people or resources. Dying insurgencies are desperate to remind their enemies and potential supporters that they are still around and still to be feared. Terrorism is a way to do this.
Al-Shabab is on the rocks, losing most of those parts of Somalia that it controlled a few years ago. The Westgate attack may inspire sympathetic sociopaths to support or even join the group. As is often the case, terrorism and criminal parasitism are the last bastion of insurgencies that have lost legitimacy and political influence. The Westgate attack will not increase al-Shabab's influence one whit, but it will appeal to a twisted few around the world who believe that participating in or supporting violence will quiet their personal demons.
The threat today comes less from al-Qaida as an organization than from the ideas it popularized by disguising sociopathic violence with a religious veneer to appeal to the world's extensive supply of lost, disillusioned and angry young men. It is extraordinarily difficult to kill ideas.
But Americans and the citizens of other nations victimized by terrorism must understand that an occasional attack, however tragic, does not demonstrate that the extremists are undergoing a revival. Violent Islamic extremism, like other forms of barbarism, will eventually fade, but it will continue to kill both Muslims and non-Muslims as it does so.
Al-Qaida and its allies can murder, but they cannot manage, produce or govern. And those latter qualities are the benchmarks of a truly dangerous enemy—one that begins small and fractured and, over time, grows more organized and better able to administer and undertake centrally controlled, coordinated political and military efforts.
Al-Qaida and its affiliates are moving in the opposite direction, becoming less organized, more fractured and less able to exercise political power. Thus they are more reliant on terrorism, particularly terrorism in highly populated areas, which is more likely to get the attention the extremists so crave.
Rather than the near-hysteria of the Economist, Americans should heed the more balanced assessment of Jason Burke of the Observer: "If it is unlikely there will be more 9/11s, it is certain there will be more Westgates,” he writes. “We can mitigate the threat but we cannot eliminate it. Hyperventilating, though inevitable, will not help."
The implication is clear: When terrorism does occur, as it will, American leaders should focus on helping build national psychological resilience rather than mining the violence for a club to pummel their political opponents. It is a time for steady leadership rather than partisan squabbling, neither exaggerating al-Qaida's demise nor its importance.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Photo-Credit: AFP--Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri,