Richard Barrett’s Al-Qaida’s Strengths and Vulnerabilities

As the United States concludes the seventh year of what has been described as a Global War on Terror and the Long War, too many are still too far from understanding the true nature of the adversaries strengths and sources of power. The overdrawn focus on a tactic, terrorism, has ignored the basic attractiveness to the adversaries cause, whether Al Qaeda, Hamas, or Hezbollah.

Success will be measured not in dissuasion in the use of a tactic, but in the principles of the act the tactic symbolizes. The general aggregation of the many adversaries does not serve the purpose of effective engagement but potentially blinds us to the required solutions that, to put it in political term, will separate the adversary from their base. In the short term, success is not a binary condition of win or lose, but a constantly evolving struggle as the adversary adapts to survive and compete.

This has been packaged as a “War of Ideas.” In his first speech as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Jim Glassman described this “War” central to our national security whose purpose to “use the tools of ideological engagement — words, deeds, and images — to create an environment hostile to violent extremism.” Many people, he noted, do not like this term, especially the practitioners. (My suggestion is the time tested “struggle for minds and wills”, but it doesn’t roll off the tongue as “War of Ideas” even if it’s more appropriate.)

The term is one thing, the concepts it represents is another. Richard Barrett’s concise report Seven Years After 9/11: Al-Qaida’s Strengths and Vulnerabilities (PDF, 15pp) describes the primary target of the War of Ideas. Exploring the strengths and vulnerabilities, Barrett arrives at a containment and strangulation solution based not on kinetic engagement supported by information, but informational engagement supported by smart kinetics.

Where Al-Qaida succeeds is in providing a framework for individuals to express their opposition to whatever it is they oppose, even if the roots of their anger lie in issues completely unknown and uninteresting to the Al-Qaida leadership. Al-Qaida manages to offer its supporters a sense of belonging and importance by taking personal or local grievances and setting them in a global context. … Its opponents should therefore avoid intentionally or unintentionally saying or doing anything that appears to support its claims, from the use of terms to describe Al-Qaida to the introduction of policies that would appear to confirm its argument that the Muslim world is under attack.

Recognising the self-destructive nature of the movement, the international community should help Al-Qaida suffer from its internal contradictions and lack of coherence; it is not well-organised, nor particularly effective, and depends greatly on its ability to exploit events through effective propaganda. That propaganda relies greatly on media that are available to all sides. A free debate, whether on the Internet or elsewhere, is likely to weaken Al-Qaida, particularly as its skill lies more in spreading propaganda in set piece films,
videos or audio tapes, rather than in the interactive, consumer led form that has come to dominate the web.

Most importantly, the international community must continue to prevent by all means possible the opportunity for Al-Qaida leaders to connect in person with their supporters. The best ways to prevent this is to keep the leaders concerned about their own security and to keep them pinned down in the remote areas of the Afghan/Pakistan border and allow them to suffer the fate of all other outsiders who have attempted to establish themselves in the region.

As Under Secretary Jim Glassman noted, the Al Qaeda ideology contains the seeds of its destruction. It’s time we nurtured those seeds.

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