Are the Terrorists Failing?

Are the Terrorists Failing? (David Ignatius, WaPo)

Looking at the gruesome images of beheadings and suicide bombings in Iraq, it’s easy to think that the Islamic holy warriors are winning. But a new book by a distinguished French Arabist named Gilles Kepel argues the opposite case. For all the mayhem the jihadists have caused, he contends, their movement is failing. Rather than waging a successful jihad against the West, the followers of Osama bin Laden have created chaos and destruction in the house of Islam. This internal crisis is known in Arabic as fitna: “It has an opposite and negative connotation from jihad,” explains Kepel. “It signifies sedition, war in the heart of Islam, a centrifugal force that threatens the faithful with community fragmentation, disintegration and ruin.”


The French scholar argues that the West has been misreading the aftermath of bin Laden’s Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He cites a December 2001 pamphlet, “Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner,” written by al Qaeda’s key strategist, the Egyptian doctor Ayman Zawahiri. The jihadists should attack the “faraway enemy” in the United States, Zawahiri urged, because it would help mobilize the Muslim masses to overthrow their rulers in the “nearby enemy.”

Kepel believes that the United States has stumbled badly in Iraq, and he’s sharply critical of U.S. policies there. But that doesn’t mean the jihadists are winning. Quite the contrary, their movement has backfired. Rather than bringing Islamic regimes to power, the holy warriors are creating internal strife and discord. Their actions are killing far more Muslims than nonbelievers. “The principal goal of terrorism — to seize power in Muslim countries through mobilization of populations galvanized by jihad’s sheer audacity — has not been realized,” Kepel writes. In fact, bin Laden’s followers are losing ground: The Taliban regime in Afghanistan has been toppled; the fence-sitting semi-Islamist regime in Saudi Arabia has taken sides more strongly with the West; Islamists in Sudan and Libya are in retreat; and the plight of the Palestinians has never been more dire. And Baghdad, the traditional seat of the Muslim caliphs, is under foreign occupation. Not what you would call a successful jihad.

Kepel argues that the insurgents’ brutal tactics in Iraq — the kidnappings and beheadings, and the car-bombing massacres of young Iraqi police recruits — are increasingly alienating the Muslim masses. No sensible Muslim would want to live in Fallujah, which is now controlled by Taliban-style fanatics. Similarly, the Muslim masses can see that most of the dead from post-Sept. 11 al Qaeda bombings in Turkey and Morocco were fellow Muslims.

Kepel is almost certainly right that most Muslims find the beheadings and wanton killings of other Muslims repugnant. The problem, though, is that there’s little evidence that they will do anything about it. So long as they continue to shelter the terrorists and are afraid to speak out, it’s almost irrelevant whether they actively support them.

David Brooks [RSS], drawing lessons from El Salvador and elsewhere, is still optimistic that democratization is the answer. Noting that things were arguably worse in El Salvador at the time of their 1982 and 1984 elections than in Iraq now, Brooks believes elections can be transformative even if they’re only partially successful.

[T]hese elections proved how resilient democracy is, how even in the most chaotic circumstances, meaningful elections can be held. They produced a National Assembly, and a president, José Napoleón Duarte. They gave the decent majority a chance to display their own courage and dignity. War, tyranny and occupation sap dignity, but voting restores it. The elections achieved something else: They undermined the insurgency. El Salvador wasn’t transformed overnight. But with each succeeding election into the early 90’s, the rebels on the left and the death squads on the right grew weaker, and finally peace was achieved, and the entire hemisphere felt the effects.


As we saw in El Salvador and as Iraqi insurgents understand, elections suck the oxygen from a rebel army. They refute the claim that violence is the best way to change things. Moreover, they produce democratic leaders who are much better equipped to win an insurgency war. It’s hard to beat an illegitimate insurgency with an illegitimate dictatorship. Strongmen have to whip up ethnic nationalism to lure soldiers to their side. They end up inciting blood feuds and reaping the whirlwind. A democratically elected leader, on the other hand, can do what Duarte did. He can negotiate with rebels, invite them into the political process and co-opt any legitimate grievances. He can rally people on all sides of the political spectrum, who are united by their attachment to the democratic idea. In Iraq, he can exploit the insurgents’ greatest weakness: they have no positive agenda.

Of course the situation in El Salvador is not easily comparable to the situations in Afghanistan or Iraq. On the other hand, over the past 30-odd years, democracy has spread at the rate of one and a half nations per year. It has spread among violence-racked nations and to 18 that are desperately poor. And it has spread not only because it inspires, but also because it works.

It’s simply astounding that in the United States, the home of the greatest and most effective democratic revolution, so many people have come to regard democracy as a luxury-brand vehicle, suited only for the culturally upscale, when it’s really a sturdy truck, effective in conditions both rough and smooth.

Brooks is right in theory. What concerns me about his analogy, though, is that there is a very significant difference in his cases: homogeneity. El Salvador has a national culture and a common religion; Iraq does not. Creating a workable balance between the Shi’a, Sunni, and Kurd populations is probably a more daunting task than defeating the insurgency.

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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.