22 Dec 2007

Al Qaeda in 2008: The Struggle for Relevance

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Stratfor’s Fred Burton and Scott Stewart assess the accuracy of their 2007 predictions and survey probable developments in the year to come.

Given the relative ease of getting an operative into the United States, the sheer number of soft targets across the vast country and the simplicity of conducting an attack, we remain surprised that no jihadist attack occurred on U.S. soil in 2007. However, we continue to believe that the United States, as well as Europe, remains vulnerable to tactical-level jihadist strikes — though we do not believe that the jihadists have the capability to launch a strategically significant attack, even if they were to employ chemical, biological or radiological weapons.

Jihadists have shown a historical fixation on using toxins and poisons. As Stratfor repeatedly has pointed out, however, chemical and biological weapons are expensive to produce, difficult to use and largely ineffective in real-world applications. Radiological weapons (dirty bombs) also are far less effective than many people have been led to believe. In fact, history clearly has demonstrated that explosives are far cheaper, easier to use and more effective at killing people than these more exotic weapons. The failure by jihadists in Iraq to use chlorine effectively in their attacks has more recently underscored the problems associated with the use of improvised chemical weapons — the bombs killed far more people than the chlorine they were meant to disperse as a mass casualty weapon.

Al-Zawahiri’s messages over the past year clearly have reflected the pressure that the group is feeling. The repeated messages referencing Iraq and the need for unity among the jihadists there show that al-Zawahiri believes the momentum has shifted in Iraq and things are not going well for al Qaeda there. Tactically, al Qaeda’s Iraqi node still is killing people, but strategically the group’s hopes of establishing a caliphate there under the mantle of the Islamic State of Iraq have all but disappeared. These dashed hopes have caused the group to lash out against former allies, which has worsened al Qaeda’s position.

It also is clear that al Qaeda is feeling the weight of the ideological war against it — waged largely by Muslims. Al-Zawahiri repeatedly has lamented specific fatwas by Saudi clerics declaring that the jihad in Iraq is not obligatory and forbidding young Muslims from going to Iraq. In a message broadcast in July, al-Zawahiri said, “I would like to remind everyone that the most dangerous weapons in the Saudi-American system are not buying of loyalties, spying on behalf of the Americans or providing facilities to them. No, the most dangerous weapons of that system are those who outwardly profess advice, guidance and instruction …” In other words, al Qaeda fears fatwas more than weapons. Weapons can kill people — fatwas can kill the ideology that motivates people.

There are two battlegrounds in the war against jihadism: the physical and the ideological. Because of its operational security considerations, the al Qaeda core has been marginalized in the physical battle. This has caused it to abandon its position at the vanguard of the physical jihad and take up the mantle of leadership in the ideological battle. The core no longer poses a strategic threat to the United States in the physical world, but it is striving hard to remain relevant on the ideological battleground.

In many ways, the ideological battleground is more important than the physical war. It is far easier to kill people than it is to kill ideologies. Therefore, it is important to keep an eye on the ideological battleground to determine how that war is progressing. In the end, that is why it is important to listen to hours of al-Zawahiri statements. They contain clear signs regarding the status of the war against jihadism. The signs as of late indicate that the ideological war is not going so well for the jihadists, but they also point to potential hazards around the bend in places such as Pakistan and Lebanon.

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