Is al-Qaida distracted by opportunities in its immediate neighborhood?

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Feb. 26 2009 10:22 AM

The Near-Enemy Theory

Are Pakistan and Afghanistan preoccupying al-Qaida?

This is the second part in a series of eight exploring why the United States suffered no follow-up terror attacks after 9/11. To read the series introduction, click here.

There's no denying that al-Qaida wants to hurt the United States. The terror group repeatedly said so, through word and action, well before 9/11. In 2004, Osama Bin Laden boasted in a videotape that al-Qaida would "make America bleed profusely to the point of bankruptcy," much as he and his fellow jihadis had made the Soviet Union bleed in the 1980s by fighting Russian troops in Afghanistan. In truth, Bin Laden and the foreign fighters he led in Afghanistan played a peripheral role in chasing the Soviets out of Afghanistan—the real credit goes to the homegrown (and CIA-financed) mujahedeen—and the failed Soviet military intervention was only one of many factors that hastened the Soviet Union's dissolution. Even so, let us grant that al-Qaida means the United States serious harm and has managed to cause the United States considerable hardship. Is that an end in itself?

Of course not. Al-Qaida wants to bleed and bankrupt the United States not because it covets the territory that lies between Canada and Mexico but because it reviles U.S. influence in the Muslim world. We can argue about the extent to which that influence is wielded on behalf of progress (secularism, rule of law, democracy) or self-interest (cheap oil, geopolitical stability, development of markets for western goods and services). To al-Qaida, it scarcely matters. "Progress" and the advancement of U.S. interests are equally undesirable because they impede al-Qaida's sacred goal of resurrecting the 1,000-year caliphate.

In the previous essay ("The Terrorists-Are-Dumb Theory"), we saw Thomas Schelling, Marc Sageman, and Max Abrahms argue that terrorists think about strategy either very poorly or not at all. If that's the case, then al-Qaida attacks the United States mostly because it's there. But if terrorists are strategic thinkers, then al-Qaida's immediate goal would logically be to start building that caliphate by fostering the creation of jihadist regimes in the lands once conquered by the Prophet Mohammed and his successors. Following this logic, the need to attack the United States would vary according to how tightly the United States kept a lid on jihadis in the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa. At the moment, the United States can't keep a very tight lid at all on Pakistan or Afghanistan, two places where al-Qaida has long maintained a presence. It would therefore make sense for al-Qaida to concentrate its resources there. Pakistan is a particular prize, because it has nuclear weapons; Bruce Riedel, formerly of the Central Intelligence Agency and now with the Brookings Institution, calls it "the most dangerous country in the world today." Two recent decisions by Pakistan authorities have caused particular alarm: an agreement with a key Taliban jihadi to impose Islamist law (Sharia) in the Swat valley, located within 100 miles of Pakistan's capital, Islamabad; and the release from house arrest of A.Q Khan, the scientist who sold nuclear secrets to North Korea, Iran, and Libya. In Afghanistan, the resurgent Taliban remains tightly knit with al-Qaida, and starting in 2005, it began adopting al-Qaida's tactic of suicide bombings. Both al-Qaida and the Taliban were implicated in the 2007 assassination of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and there's some evidence they also collaborated on a failed attempt to assassinate Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in April 2008.

Jihadis speak of the "near enemy" (apostate regimes in and around the Middle East) and the "far enemy" (the United States and the West generally). The man credited with coining these terms, Mohammed Abd al-Salam Faraj, did so largely to emphasize that it was much more important to attack the near enemy, a principle he upheld by organizing the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. (The Egyptian government affirmed the same principle in executing Faraj.) In 1993, a militant Egyptian group called al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya ("the Islamic Group"), which had extensive ties to al-Qaida, broke with the "near enemy" strategy and bombed the World Trade Center. In 1996, al-Qaida followed suit and formally turned its attention to the far enemy. But according to Fawaz A. Gerges, an international affairs professor at Sarah Lawrence and author of The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global, other jihadist groups around the world never really bought into this shift in priorities. Even al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya had by late 1999 declared a cease-fire, a move that outraged its incarcerated spiritual leader, Omar Abdel-Rahman ("the blind sheikh") and caused the group to splinter. With the 9/11 attacks, Bin Laden hoped to rally jihadis outside al-Qaida's orbit to join the battle against the far enemy. Instead, he scared them off. Al-Qaida is today the only foreign terror group we know of with a declared interest in attacking the United States. That's why discussion—including this one—about whether the United States might experience another 9/11 typically focuses solely on al-Qaida. (I explain in "The Melting-Pot Theory" why the possibility of a domestic group causing another 9/11 is considered remote.) If al-Qaida isn't focused right now on attacking the United States, then there's no reason to believe anyone is.

I place the Near-Enemy Theory one stop further on the worry spectrum from the Terrorists-Are-Dumb Theory because even if al-Qaida is right now preoccupied with opportunities in its backyard, that doesn't necessarily keep it from devoting some resources to attacking the United States. The 9/11 attacks provoked the United States into invading Afghanistan and Iraq, and these invasions turned the Muslim world against the United States. In Pakistan, the percentage of the population holding favorable views about the United States (23 percent) fell by more than half (to 10 percent) between 1999 and 2002, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project. Since then, it's crept up again to 19 percent. To whatever extent a new al-Qaida attack on the United States provoked further U.S. military action in the Muslim world, Pakistan's opinion of the United States would probably sour once again. Al-Qaida might consider that likelihood a valuable tool in its "near enemy" fight. Balanced against this, however, al-Qaida may have pondered where the U.S. troops would probably pour in: Pakistan and Afghanistan. That would be a likely setback in its "near enemy" fight.

Next: "The Melting-Pot Theory," in which we'll examine why American Muslims eschew terrorism.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.