Al Qaeda has Lost the Middle East

So proclaims Dan Drezner. He cites an unsigned Economist article from last week that bears the subtitle, “As al-Qaeda scores own-goals in its backyard, many Arabs, including some Iraqis, are beginning to rethink their position on violence in the name of resistance.” The piece gives some evidence to buttress the view that, as many of us have long been predicting/hoping, the killing of Muslims by al Qaeda is backfiring.

These parts caught my attention:

The undermining of entrenched myths is a slow and halting process. But it is subject to sudden, shattering jolts, such as the November 9th suicide bombing of three hotels in the Jordanian capital, Amman. In the minds of the killers, American-allied Jordan had become a rear base for the “crusader†invaders of Iraq, and so its hotels, the sort of places where crusaders and their minions congregate, were legitimate targets for the resistance.

Yet it is perhaps more than incidentally ironic that among the 60 people they killed was Mustapha Akkad, the Syrian-born director who created “Lion of the Desertâ€. His film, glorifying the bravery of Muslim resistance fighters, happened to be one of the few productions explicitly endorsed on jihadist websites, albeit in a version that replaced the musical soundtrack with religious chants, and cut out all scenes showing women.

The global al-Qaeda franchise, whose Iraqi branch claimed responsibility for the Amman atrocity, has scored many own-goals over the years. The carnage in such Muslim cities as Istanbul, Casablanca, Sharm el-Sheikh and Riyadh has alienated the very Muslim masses the jihadists claim to be serving. By bringing home the human cost of such violence, they have even stripped away the shameful complacency with which the Sunni Muslim majority in other Arab countries has tended to regard attacks by Iraq’s Sunni insurgent “heroes†against “collaborationist†Shia mosque congregations, funeral processions and police stations.

This is followed by several anecdotal examples of the man on the Arab street getting mad. Less anecdotally–although always somewhat suspect in societies without a history of free expression–is some polling data.

Poll on Arab attitudes after Amman, Jordan bombings

Poll on Arab attitudes after Amman, Jordan bombings

So what? After all, dictators don’t care about polls.

A more tangible measure of change is the behaviour of Arab states. Undemocratic though they may be, shaky Arab governments in many cases owe their baseline legitimacy to their own historical record of perceived resistance to foreign hegemony. The deeply unpopular invasion of Iraq placed them in a quandary. Any gesture towards aiding the success of this “American project†risked a fierce popular backlash. That equation has now altered, and the results are already evident.

The two Arab heavyweights, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have lately begun to lend their diplomatic clout to resolving Iraq’s troubles. The sudden urgency to do something, after years of fence-sitting, is prompted by several fears. One of these, seemingly justified by the Amman bombing, is that Iraq has turned from being a sponge for jihadist violence into a fountainhead that threatens the region.

I am not quite ready to declare victory. Terrorists in general and jihadists in particular have proven quite hard to defeat. Still, this is excellent news.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Herb says:

    This is a very interesting story and like you, victory is not quite ready to be declaired. However, it does seem apparant that the terrorists movement has suffered a lot lately.
    Now the big question is, will the democrats accept a victory or continue their political agenda of doom and gloom. After the Bush speech today, I saw Kerry with his “No Plan”, “Hate Bush” “Defeatist” mouth going off as usual. His entire talk left no doubt that he “just doesn’t get it yet”.

    Oh well, what more would one expect from a loser.

  2. legion says:

    Very interesting, but it brings up some disturbing thoughts… One would assume that the terrorists are blowing up more things in their own ‘backyard’ (and more Moslems as a result) because it’s easier than blowing stuff up ‘over here’.

    That’s all well and good, and it falls in line with one of the many, many justifications for this war – that of fighting the bad guys ‘over there’ instead of ‘over here’. But how does that bump up with one of the _other_ justifications – specifically, that of making life better & safer for the Iraqis (and people in the Middle East in general)?

    I mean, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that fighting bad guys ‘over there’ is going to make life a lot _less_ safe for all the other people ‘over there’. I’m not saying I’d rather have terrorists dropping more planes out of the sky, but it does underline the fact that this entire war on terror has never been very well thought-out…

    It also explains why the Iraqis are getting more and more antsy for us to get out…

  3. McGehee says:

    It also explains why the Iraqis are getting more and more antsy for us to get out…

    Well, in the past when al Qaeda has been under pressure and then the pressure eased, what they did was dig in and start taking over. As much as anything else it’s a criminal enterprise and will exploit any opportunity.

    That is, after all, why we’re resisting bugging out too soon.

  4. Bithead says:

    And it gives rise to my argument that the war’s been over for a while now… and we won. (So much for the leftie argument of the US lost the war!) THe fact is, we’re currently engaged in NATION BUILDING, now which is an utterly different thing.

  5. Reporting for Doody says:

    They did say the killings in Jordan were an accident.