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Ten Questions For Dr. Walid Phares

Written by W. Thomas Smith Jr.

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September 1, 2008
By W. Thomas Smith Jr.
Less than two weeks from the 7th anniversary of the most horrific terrorist attack on American soil, Middle East terrorism expert Dr. Walid Phares shares his thoughts on recent reports issued by a variety of analysts and think tanks, which are suggesting – among other things - the global war on terror should be prosecuted not as a war, but as an international campaign against criminals: An approach Phares believes is a recipe for failure.

Phares also describes and explains the evolving strategic trends within the Jihadist movement worldwide, as well as the present state of Al Qaeda, the Jihadist ideology, the terror forces that subscribe to that ideology, and the approaches Phares believes may be taken by the next U.S. president. 

Director of the Future of Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Phares is a visiting scholar at the European Foundation for Democracy and an advisor to the TransAtlantic Legislative Group on Terrorism. He is the author of The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad, the third book in his series examining international terrorism and the dynamics that fuel it.

Phares has been following and analyzing the rise of the Salafi and Khomeinist movements for nearly 30 years, and has been predicting the strategic rise of Jihadism since the end of the Cold War.

Our Q&A follows:

W. THOMAS SMITH JR.: Over the past two-plus months, analysts and commentators have posited that Al-Qaeda (both the command-and-control nucleus and the – often disconnected elements of the – broader network) has been significantly weakened, perhaps to the point of insignificance. Do we have substantive intelligence indicating such?

DR. WALID PHARES: Al Qaeda has been weakened, but not to the point that it has been defeated or driven from the battlefield. Remember it took only a handful of Al Qaeda terrorists to strike at the heart of New York, Washington, Madrid, and London. Al Qaeda as it presently exists, continues to retain the capacity to conduct these kinds of operations. The organization continues to focus on its ongoing, asymmetric operations such as those in Iraq and Pakistan. Let me be clear as regards Iraq: If American forces were to pull-out abruptly, Al Qaeda would return to the Sunni triangle. And regarding Pakistan, if the Jihadists are able to further penetrate the army and the intelligence services they may be able to shift the ground in Pakistan, and perhaps penetrate the nuclear system of that country.

The analysis and commentary we’ve seen which claims Al Qaeda has been significantly weakened, suggests that the organization has had their objectives denied for the present in Iraq and Afghanistan. But we must remember, all of this is based on the reliance of a strong U.S. and NATO presence. The question remains: would the local governments continue to defeat Al Qaeda after withdrawal, and would they have any chance of defeating it ideologically. In my estimation, no. Not yet. The pre 9/11 Al Qaeda has been weakened to be sure. but the post-9/11 Al Qaeda has mutated into a different type of network which is capable of regrouping more rapidly and re-emerging when the balance of power shifts on the ground. 

SMITH: Some – like author and terrorism researcher Marc Sageman – contend the greatest danger comes from young radicalized Muslims with virtually no connection to Al Qaeda and its leadership. Is this an accurate assertion?

DR. PHARES: There is no such thing as a “greatest” or real danger as opposed to a lesser or false danger. There is one global ideological movement: Part of it is Al Qaeda. Other elements of the movement are local Jihadists. In my assessment, there is no such thing as “radicalized Muslims,” but indoctrinated Jihadists among Muslims and those who are opposing them. The term “radicalized Muslims” is used to imply that Jihadism is a reaction to Western policies. In reality, the rise of the Jihadists is produced by a vast ideological indoctrination. Hence the so-called young “radicalized Muslims” as stated by other experts are Jihadists who were indoctrinated by the same ideologues who have fed Al Qaeda with these views of the world. Ideologically, it is the same global Salafist movement. Al Qaeda is a centrally controlled organization, and there are many self-established groups that hope to emulate Al Qaeda or eventually link with it. Those Jihadists who emerge outside Al Qaeda are indeed a great danger. And in the end, they will merge.

SMITH: Professor Bruce Hoffman and others talk about Al Qaeda resurging along the Afghan-Pakistan border as evidence that the central element stills exists, and that it still matters. Others argue that this is a more of a Pashtun fight, not Al Qaeda. Do we fully understand how much of what’s happening there has to do with Al Qaeda?

DR. PHARES: The fight led by the Taliban, Al Qaeda and many Jihadists from around the world is not a local “ethnic” fight for power. For Arabs, Chechens, Europeans, Africans and Asians to be fighting along with the Taliban and Al Qaeda means that the movement is transnational, not local, even though it has vast support among the Pashtun; because it also has support in other parts of the world among other ethnicities.

In short, the combat Jihadi movement is now international, has Al Qaeda as its epicenter, and has affiliated groups around the region and worldwide. But many experts and academics still try to portray it in such a way – and with so many different faces — so that it is not defined as a global movement. For if it is defined as such, there will be policy consequences such as identifying its ideology, that is Salafism and Wahabism. For it is a fact that while Al Qaeda recruits from various pools, the organization is not the one that is creating and feeding those pools ideologically. There are oil-producing regimes that are responsible for the expansion of the ideology. Thus we have been seeing plenty of petrodollars invested in the West to shield the ideology of Jihadism while claiming that al Qaeda is weak, benign, and that we shouldn’t be very worried about it.

SMITH: The recent RAND study by Seth G. Jones and Martin C. Libicki tell as that “terrorists should be perceived and described as criminals, not holy warriors,” and so should be fought through law enforcement and intelligence agencies, not with armies. If so, what should be the strategy? And how is it different from what’s being done?

DR. PHARES: I disagree with the RAND conclusions. This is precisely why the U.S. and the greater West have been surprised and hit by the Jihadists and al Qaeda, as we saw on 9/11. And this is because the academic elite of the 1990s said then that the Jihadists were just criminals and that they did not form a legitimate movement. The intellectual establishment failed Western governments with their wrong advice. And we saw the consequences on 9/11.  The argument that terrorists are criminals is not adding to the debate. Of course they are criminals. The statement that the Jihadists aren’t holy warriors has to be made by Islamic religious authorities, not by NGOs and think tanks. In the eyes of their constituencies, the Jihadists are indeed perceived as legitimate. In the same way that in the eyes of many German citizens in the 1930s, leading to – and during – World War II, the Nazis were perceived as nationalist fighters. The Nazis seized power and waged war. The answer to their action was a world campaign, a world war by democracies against them. The argument then wasn’t that Nazism was a good or bad thing, but that the followers of Hitler were criminals! Just the opposite I would argue. The Jihadi terrorists have to be confronted with all means, neither just armies nor just law enforcement or intelligence services. I’ll even argue that the most powerful weapon against the Jihadists is none of the latter. It is the prosecution of a war of ideas, with soft powers.

SMITH: There has been some discussion that the term, “war on terror,” may fall into disuse. Will the next president of the United States continue to use the term to describe the war in which we are clearly involved?

DR. PHARES: There are efforts in Europe to do away with the term, and there are some efforts in the U.S. to follow suit. But the alternatives will be much different. If Obama is the next U.S. president, I believe he will end the war-on-terror doctrine and replace it with a Clinton-like police effort against criminals. If McCain is the next president, I believe he may also abandon the term and replace it with the current term he is using “war with radical Islamic extremism,” or with the much clearer concept of “war with global Jihadists”. The term “war of ideas” was a middle ground between two schools. Soon, one of the two schools will prevail.

SMITH: In the years since 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan, we’ve been talking about Al Qaeda as if it were a global force, with a reach extending from South Asia to the Maghreb and beyond. Then we’ve heard about Al Qaeda “the label” and “Al Qaedism.” From what we now know, how many of the ideologically sympathizing terrorist groups, from the Philippines to Algeria actually have connections to Al Qaeda and its leaders?

DR. PHARES: Again, many experts – unwilling to accept the reality that Jihadism is a global ideology and movement – went in different directions trying to explain the phenomenon away from its real and historic roots. Perhaps the little linguistic and cultural knowledge that was available pushed these analysts to adopt conclusions alien to the essence of Al Qaeda. In the Arab political debate there is not such thing as “Al Qaedism.” There is no such thing as Al Qaeda’s label or branding. The reality is simple: Beyond Al Qaeda and all similar organizations there is a one global ideology called Jihadism. If we compare this with the “Lord of the Rings” tales, Jihadism is the “ring,” a strong force that lords and leaders use in their quest for expansion. These lords such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri come and go. But the “force” – or ideology — remains and produces more leaders. So, Al Qaeda is a central organization for Jihadists, but there are Jihadi groups around the world, most of whom look at Al Qaeda as the great center. But again, this constellation, if you will, is the product of an ideology and of doctrinaires. If we fail to understand this, we fail to properly analyze the future.

SMITH: Twenty-or-so years after the birth of Al Qaeda, does it make sense to speak of winners? And is Al-Qaeda winning – even if we’re talking in terms of ideology and not pitched battles – or losing?

DR. PHARES: Al Qaeda will win if the West fails to understand what makes Al Qaeda strong and capable of evolving. The West has been able drive Al Qaeda from two major battlefronts, but it has yet to win a war of ideas against Jihadism. The real battle is within the West between those who want to quit the conflict and those who want to press forward until Jihadism, not just Al Qaeda, is defeated. Al Qaeda will lose if we recognize that there is an ideology to defeat it and that the best allies in this confrontation are those anti-Jihadist Muslims. Short of this happening, this is a back-and-forth battle without end.

SMITH: Did the war in Iraq – as did the Jihad in Afghanistan – produce another generation of fighters?

DR. PHARES: It is not the battlefield, but the Jihadi factories that produce the generations of fighters. The attack on Serbia did not produce suicide bombers. The campaign against Haiti’s military didn’t create a generation of Haitian terrorists. And China’s occupation of Tibet is not generating violent armed militias. The point is the Jihadists who are heading towards Iraq or Afghanistan are already followers of Jihadism. They have already been indoctrinated by the Madrassas. If not Iraq, it would be Somalia, Algeria, Chechnya, London or Madrid. They aren’t a reaction to, they are a force “sui generic,” with a world view and strategies. Going to Iraq or not is a different discussion. Iraq didn’t create Jihadism, just the opposite the Jihadists are prolonging the war in Iraq.

SMITH: What about the increasing recruitment of women?

DR. PHARES: This is a new strategic trend. The Jihadists – including Al Qaeda – are innovative, and retooling with all their resources. First, they are trying to use non-Arab Jihadis instead of Arabs. Then more European-looking than Middle Eastern-looking recruits. Also women, as many as they can bring into the fold. This is a war. They know it. And they are trying to use all their resources to develop new weapons to win the war. Again, if we do not thwart them with their most powerful tool – their ideology – we won’t be able to determine from which direction and in what way they will come. But if we do identify this ideology and counter it, their resources will be isolated and their power reversed.

SMITH: There are some signs of dissension within the ranks of Al Qaeda, as well as indications that Al Qaeda and their leaders enjoy lessening-support in Muslim countries. Did the late Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s cruelty and indiscriminate killings contribute?

DR. PHARES: No. The killing of Muslims is not the primary factor weakening Al Qaeda in the eyes of the Jihadists. It is the inability of Al Qaeda to defeat the infidels as they promised. If you read what the dissidents are saying, you’ll  understand that they are somewhat the realists who are arguing that the reckless strategies of bin laden have not been in the interest of long-term Jihad. As for Muslim public opinion, it is divided. Those who support Jihadism haven’t changed their minds massively but some are criticizing the management of the effort by bin laden. And those among the Muslims who oppose the Salafists, haven’t changed their mind and are still very much opposed to Al Qaeda. We in the West we try to find signs of weakness in Al Qaeda because many aren’t able to provide answers as to the nature of the ideology and are dodging that hard reality.

Visit W. Thomas Smith Jr. online at uswriter.com.

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