Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Pass That Gun, My Foot Is Acting Up

It has long been the contention of TIA that the inadequately named "war on terror" is really a larger war for the hearts and mind of the Muslim world - operating much like a global counter-insurgency effort. In the current dynamic, we are pitted against propagandists like Bin Laden and other radical elements that seek to beat back the perceived aggression of the West and return the Muslim world to an idealized, mythical caliphate state (please note: Bin Laden is, unfortunately, not an indispensable figure but merely the current mouthpiece to a broader movement). To achieve these ends, they seek to weaken the West, and the United States in particular, which they see as an impediment to their overall mission. The good news is that Bin Laden's brand of ideology is relegated to the fringe of the nearly 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide, despite the fact that some who do not ascribe to his overall theory probably delight in his ability to lash out at the United States and the West in general - especially because dissatisfaction and anger over U.S. foreign policy runs in the high 80-95 percentiles through much of the region.

The bad news is, his ideology has appeared to be gaining in momentum and appeal. I recall the interpretation of CIA counter-terrorism expert Michael Scheuer, publishing under the pseudonym "Anonymous," when he wrote that Bin Laden had been disappointed with the reaction of Muslims to the toppling of the Taliban. Bin Laden had anticipated a public outcry, and a massive uprising. Instead, the Muslim world looked away, acceding, at least tacitly, to what was deemed a justifiable response by the United States. But then we invaded Iraq, and we gave Bin Laden much of what he sought to accomplish in provoking us in response to 9/11. In the words of
Scheuer, "if Osama was a Christian, the invasion of Iraq would have been the Christmas present he long desired but never thought his parents would give him."

I return again to the words of Jason Burke, author of Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, writing for
Foreign Policy magazine (excellent summary of the issues and a recommended read):

Bin Laden is a propagandist, directing his efforts at attracting those Muslims who have hitherto shunned his extremist message. He knows that only through mass participation in his project will he have any chance of success. His worldview is receiving immeasurably more support around the globe than it was two years ago, let alone 15 years ago when he began serious campaigning. The objective of Western countries is to eliminate the threat of terror, or at least to manage it in a way that does not seriously impinge on the daily lives of its citizens. Bin Laden's aim is to radicalize and mobilize. He is closer to achieving his goals than the West is to deterring him.
But just as I believe the Bush team handed Bin Laden and his fellow travelers a favor in the invasion of Iraq, it appears that Bin Laden and his ilk may have been inspired by the season of gift-giving and are returning the kindness with bit of over-reaching hubris that some critics think is the sole purview of the Bush administration. I am referring to the two most recent videos released by Bin Laden and his erstwhile rival, and current ally, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

For his part, Bin Laden called on Iraqis to boycott the elections, and praised the efforts of Zarqawi. The language was actually quite strong:

"The constitution imposed by the American occupier (Paul) Bremer is blasphemous ... and anyone who takes part in this election consciously and willingly is an infidel," said the speaker, who sounded similar to previous bin Laden recordings.

"You have to be careful of those charlatans who, under the guise of Islamic parties, urge the people to take part in the election," he added. [emphasis added]
Zarqawi chimed in with his own declaration of war on the elections, calling the candidates "demi-idols" and those that participate "infidels" and threatening violence for all involved.

"We have declared a fierce war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology," said the speaker, who identified himself as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, head of the al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq. "Anyone who tries to help set up this system is part of it."
These bold and aggressive proclamations were, ultimately, a major strategic blunder, the likes of which comes as good news to an American side that must have been waiting for a moment like this - and I'll explain why. The daftness of Bin Laden and Zarqawi can be broken down into three major gaffes: First, by calling candidates and participants "infidels," Bin Laden and Zarqawi are insulting (very much an understatement) the entire Shiite population (including and especially their religious leadership) and those Sunnis that are complicit with the process. Second, by championing Zarqawi, and for Zarqawi to assert himself on this stage, Bin Laden risks angering Iraqis who resent the violence and terror sown by Zarqawi's network - which has disproportionately impacted Iraqis not American or coalition forces. Third, because Bin Laden and Zarqawi are foreigners, a Saudi and Jordanian respectively, their interference in the Iraqi elections is likely to rouse nationalistic sentiments provoked by the intrusion of these outsiders.

Juan Cole describes certain aspects of the relation of these statements to the Shiite population, and the wider Iraqi populace as a whole:

Bin Laden's intervention in Iraq was hamfisted and clumsy, and will benefit the United States and the Shiites enormously. Most Iraqi Muslims, Sunni or Shiite, dislike the Wahhabi branch of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia, and with which Bin Laden is associated. Nationalistic Iraqis will object to a foreigner interfering in their national affairs...

Bin Laden as much as declared Grand Ayatollah Sistani an infidel. But Sistani is almost universally loved by the 65% of Iraqis who are Shiites, and is widely respected among many Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, as well. Bin Laden, the Saudi engineer, makes himself look ridiculous trying to give a fatwa against the Grand Ayatollah of Najaf. If anything, to have al-Qaeda menacing the Shiites in this way would tend to strengthen the American-Shiite alliance.
Cole on the involvement of Zarqawi in the process:

Zarqawi is widely hated in Iraq because the operations of his group often kill innocent Iraqis as opposed to American troops. The Shiites in particular despise Zarqawi, and are aware of his hopes of provoking a Sunni-Shiite bloodbath in Iraq. (The muted Shiite response to the US assault on Fallujah in November and December derived in large part from a conviction that the city had become a base for Zarqawi and like-minded Salafi terrorists). Zarqawi websites have claimed credit for the assassination in 2003 of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, a respected Shiite leader, which involved desecrating the Shiite holy city of Najaf. The mainstream of the Kurds hates Zarqawi, because of his earlier association with the small Kurdish radical Muslim terrorist group, Ansar al-Islam, which targeted the two major Kurdish parties.
Cole goes on to conclude that Bin Laden's statements, by focusing only on a narrow sliver of Salafi jihadists and not couched in a way to appeal broader Sunni and/or Shiite elements, are a sign of his weakness.

If Bin Laden had been politically clever, he would have phrased his message in the terms of Iraqi nationalism. By siding with the narrowest sliver of Sunni extremists, he denied himself any real impact. By adopting Zarqawi, who has killed many more Iraqis (especially Shiites) than he has Americans, he simply tarnishes his own image inside Iraq.

It appears that Bin Laden is so weak now that he is forced to play to his own base, of Saudi and Salafi jihadists, some of whom are volunteer guerrillas in Iraq. They are the only ones in Iraq who would be happy to see this particular videotape.
I hope that Professor Cole is reading the tea leaves correctly in relation to this incident. Bin Laden's weakness could be a welcomed sign that the ideology of jihad is beginning to wane in its popularity. The irony would be delightfully sweet if Bin Laden and Zarqawi themselves provide an impetus for the emergence of a new Iraqi nationalism, an adherence to democratic institutions, and a mass refutation of the jihadist ideology. While optimistic in its predictions, I think this backlash is very possible, especially when you consider the fact that Iraq had no real home-grown fundamentalist movement before the invasion, as Saddam was not one to tolerate Wahhabists nor were Iraqi citizens known to populate the armies of Jihad in far off places like Chechnya, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and elsewhere. Although not a magic bullet, maybe Bin Laden and Zarqawi are clarifying the issues for Iraqis in a way that could breed cooperation and resolution. Perhaps we should consider providing them with more tape-making equipment, because the loaded video camera is aimed straight at their own two feet.

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