To defeat al Qa'eda, the US will have to start listening to Arabs
The war on terrorism has failed. All assertions to the contrary by the US administration crumble before tangible evidence that show al Qa'eda maintaining an alarming level of sympathy in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and surviving military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Reasons for the failure are numerous, but they are essentially rooted in the superficiality of the US approach and Washington's reluctance to address effectively regional conflicts that have rendered the Middle East a fertile ground for the growth of radical ideologies.
The underlying deficiency of the US antiterrorism campaign is its disconnection from regional political, historical and cultural contexts. Washington focused on the military dimension to curb international terror while ignoring the need to discredit the ideology that guarantees al Qaeda a continuous supply of recruits and the regional environment that nourishes its growth.
Washington has paid little attention to calls for placing the war on terror in a more comprehensive context. It rejected arguments that progress in peace efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict is a necessary requirement for ending the environment of despair that have rendered many frustrated youngsters easy prey for radical groups. It ignored advice to revise its policies towards the Middle East, which win its enemies immediate support in the area, and it forged no significant partnerships with local forces that could have led the intellectual battle against al Qa'eda.
The anarchy which the war on Iraq has created has also worked to the advantage of terrorist groups, ideologically and operationally. In ideological terms, the situation in Iraq has been propagated as evidence of America's devilish intentions towards Arabs and Muslims. Operationally, the weakness of the security structure has enabled al Qa'eda to turn Iraq into a safe haven for training terrorists and dispatching them on terror missions, such as the suicide attacks on three hotels in Amman in November 2005.
A turnaround in the global war on terror requires fundamental changes in US strategy. Washington will have to acknowledge its failure and seek new partnerships with regional powers to draw a new approach that directs the war on terror towards the root causes of the plague.
The first thing America needs to do is to recognise that the war on terrorism will not be won on the military front alone. The killing of a few terrorists here and there will certainly save lives and abort some attacks, but it will not defeat al Qa'eda. The war on terror is an ideological battle that has to be launched at schools, in mosques and through the media. And these are fronts not open to the US.
Which means that Washington cannot win this war alone. Only Arabs and Muslims can defeat al Qa'eda by discrediting its claim to represent Islam. And they have good reasons to do so. Not only has al Qa'eda killed fellow Muslims in Amman, Rabat, Riyadh and Algiers, but it has also tarnished the reputation of the faith and put the Muslim civilisation on a course of confrontation with other cultures.
Al Qa'eda claims it is waging jihad to defend the Muslim faith and protect the rights of its followers. It justifies its actions by false interpretation of religious teachings. Those same teachings must be used to expose the true nature of al Qa'eda. Only credible Muslim scholars can refute terrorist propaganda.
In this endeavour, Arabs and Muslims, whether in governments, the media or intellectual circles, have to stop appeasing apologists for al Qa'eda and start criminalising them. Unfortunately, efforts to counter these people have been lukewarm at best.
The problem is that Arab governments that follow this path will be tainted as stooges of the US. Unless America helps — which it can by leading initiatives that will enable its moderate allies in the Middle East to regain their credibility.
The foremost requirement is progress in the peace process. Almost everything in the Arab world is seen through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Opinion polls show a majority of Arabs believe Washington's unconditional support for Israel is responsible for prolonging the suffering of the Palestinians. Any breakthrough in efforts to end that suffering will go far to containing the growing enmity towards America and will render co-operation in efforts to fight terrorism more marketable.
What is also important is for America to listen to its allies. Many an Arab leader has complained that advice to Washington on regional policies has fallen on deaf ears. US actions have embarrassed these leaders and increased the political cost of associating with America.
Given the record of the Bush administration, it is unlikely it will admit its failure nor reconsider its policies. Accordingly, the regional partnership needed to prevail over terrorist groups will not materialise, and al Qaeda will continue to be a threat to Arabs and Westerners alike.
Against such a backdrop, it appears that al Qa'eda will survive the Bush war. And it will not be surprising if Osama bin Laden makes "a victory speech" when George Bush leaves the White House next January.
Ayman Safadi is a former editor of Alghad, in Jordan, and is a commentator on Middle Eastern issues.
Published: April 30, 2008 04:00 AM