Al-Qa’ida is not simply the terrorist organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks; it is a violent manifestation of a social movement, writes the Middle East Institute’s Dr. Michael Ryan. As such, it cannot be defeated without an ideological “deep battle,” including a viable counter-narrative to the movement’s propaganda used to recruit potential allies.
By deploying state-of-the-art military technology including drones, in the service of counterterrorism, the United States has fought a highly effective close battle against al-Qa’ida. At the same time, it has not recognized the social movement that al-Qa’ida inspires, let alone engaged it in the deep battle of ideas.
“As Arab resentment against the United States spreads, al-Qaeda may look less like a tightly knit terror group and more like a mass movement,” Wall Street Journal reporter Alan Cullison wrote in 2004. This prediction appears prophetic today, as the al-Qa’ida organization of 2001, which styled itself as the jihadi vanguard, is nearly destroyed, while the jihadi organizations it spawned or inspired have spread from Pakistan through the Middle East to North Africa and the Sahel. …..
Now, after Bin Laden’s death and the turbulent events of the “Arab Spring,” the adaptable al-Qa’ida is changing again. If the Arab Spring is a movement striving for dignity and a place to prosper in the global society of nations, the weakened al-Qa’ida and its allies are the backlash.
Jihadi Movement: Next Phase
Most importantly, however, for the first time Americans must engage in the deep battle of ideas against the jihadi movement—a battle that the United States won during the Cold War when it competed with international communism. Now facing a small but dangerous opponent, the United States can still demonstrate to the vast majority of citizens in the greater Middle East the relative success of democracy in delivering dignity, jobs, and social justice to its citizens.
This counter-narrative is not the same as an information war or psychological operations; it is a forthright narrative that is demonstrably true. The story will be more effective if relayed by the private sector rather than the government and is composed of at least three parts:
The first is that al-Qa’ida and those who follow its ideological project cannot win the close battle; al-Qa’ida can only destroy rather than build an economy or an acceptable system of justice. …. Where self-styled jihadi groups have waged an insurgency they have not produced a viable state either because they overreached their capabilities and were roundly defeated, as in Saudi Arabia or Mali, or they created mayhem without any result beyond destruction, as in Somalia, Yemen, and parts of Pakistan. ..
Second, by using al-Qa’ida’s own documents and actions, scholars can show that the core of jihadi political-military strategy is secular and familiar, not based on Islam despite its propaganda to the contrary. …..
Most importantly, the United States needs to emphasize what many in the greater Middle East already know: that the thriving American Muslim community is economically integrated, successful, and able to practice its religious beliefs freely and protected by law.
Factual international media coverage of American life, while showing that it is not perfect, can amply demonstrate how Muslims can succeed in a democratic society. There should be no concern that problems in American society will be featured on occasion; currently, the problems are amply represented, but the real, balanced story cannot be effectively told without robust international media access to everyday American life.
Clearly, these suggestions for a counter-narrative are only the barest beginnings of a process that requires the best ideas and diverse points of view. Like most significant battles, the deep battle will not be won in an instant, but we must begin it.
This extract is taken from a longer article published by the Middle East Institute.
Dr. Michael Ryan, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, was former Political-Military and foreign assistance specialist for Departments of Defense and State with emphasis on the Middle East and North Africa.