Fawaz Gerges was one of a handful of serious scholars paying attention to the threat of Islamist terrorism in the years prior to 9/11. He wrote a fine book debating Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis. More damningly, just a year and a half before the attacks on Washington and New York, he wrote dismissively of "the terrorist industry," comprising writers who perpetuated an "irrational fear of terrorism by focusing too much on farfetched horrible scenarios." To his credit, Gerges later conceded that he had been wrong. "I think most of us really underestimated the power and the strength and the reach of the jihadi elements," he said on CNN. "I personally did not really expect in my wildest estimation that Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden would be able to unleash the terror that took place on 9/11."
Gerges has since made up for his mistake by publishing some terrific books on al-Qaeda and Islamist terrorism. In The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global (2005), he provided arguably the most convincing explanation yet for al-Qaeda's decision to wage war against the United States. Composed of close readings of Arabic texts written by jihadists as well as original interviews with them, the book contended that the senior leadership in al-Qaeda decided in the mid-1990s to fight the far enemy — America — when it was defeated in war against the near enemy in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy (2007) followed the result of Gerges's discussions in the Middle East with Islamists. Built around a series of compelling profiles, the book built on The Far Enemy's themes and bore out its thesis.
Now the director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and regarded as among the world's top experts on radical Islam, Gerges has emerged with The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda. The book was already in production when Osama bin Laden was killed by a team of Navy SEALs, a development fortunate for both the United States and Gerges. As the title indicates, The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda argues that the terrorist organization is basically finished. "It has all but vanished, or at least dwindled to the palest shadow of its former self," Gerges writes. Most of al-Qaeda's skilled operatives and mid-level lieutenants have either been killed or captured, depriving the organization of veterans and effective managers. "Cooks, drivers, bodyguards, and foot soldiers now make up the bulk of al-Qaeda's membership." Its leadership is decimated, without sanctuary, resources or operational capability.
How the world's deadliest terrorist group was destroyed is only part of the book. Separate chapters also detail al-Qaeda's rise, its estrangement from other jihadist groups before 9/11, and its isolation in the Islamist world following its execution of the attacks. Unfortunately, The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda suffers from a great deal of repetition. Gerges repeats dozens of times his contention that the terrorist threat is overblown and al-Qaeda is dead. The book is slim but could have stood to be even slimmer with better editing.
However, also like The Far Enemy, Gerges's new book has much to recommend it. His research is first-rate, the result of years of close study of debates among jihadists about the movement's future. Little of The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda is based on original interviews and profiles, as Journey of the Jihadist and The Far Enemy were. Nonetheless, he is able to draw on those works as well as the many open-source writings within Islamist circles to paint a comprehensive portrait of al-Qaeda. Indeed, if one were to read only The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda to understand the twenty-first century's definitive terrorist organization, one would be well-informed. His extensive knowledge of his sources is particularly useful, as it permits him to follow the ongoing developments and ideas within jihadist circles.
Gerges is persuasive in his claim that al-Qaeda is essentially finished, and in his explanation for its demise. Since the group had "no economic blueprint, no political horizon and no vision for the future," it was always destined to fail. Its rejection of democracy and the separation of powers essentially renders it useless in offering Muslims around the world a workable plan for living in the modern world. "[A]l-Qaeda's core ideology is incompatible with the universal aspirations of the Arabs," Gerges writes. "Arabs and Muslims do not hate America and the West but rather admire their democratic institutions, including free elections, peaceful transitions of leadership, and separation of powers."
More concretely, al-Qaeda wrote its own obituary when it decided to attack the United States. Some of the most interesting parts of this book detail other Islamists' condemnation of the attacks; by provoking America and slaughtering thousands of innocents, al-Qaeda committed a fatal miscalculation, these jihadists argue. Over and again, al-Qaeda has wounded itself by choosing the path of violence. The attempts by al-Qaeda in Iraq to sow civil war in the mid-2000s led to a historic defeat, as most Muslims around the world were horrified at the group's brutality. So grievous a mistake was Bin Laden's decision to sanction the murderous rampage of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, that he took the extraordinary step of publicly apologizing. "We all make mistakes and we should seek forgiveness for these mistakes," Bin Laden said. "In Iraq, al-Qaeda lost more than a battle and country; it lost a historic opportunity to integrate itself with an aggrieved Sunni community that initially had tolerated its presence, and it lost the opportunity to make inroads into neighboring Arab countries," Gerges writes.
Despite many self-inflicted casualties, Gerges argues, the United States has continually breathed oxygen into the terrorist group. Its decision to station U.S. troops on Saudi Arabian soil during and after the first Gulf War was a fateful step in inspiring Bin Laden and his ilk to target America in the first place. Next, after successfully overthrowing the Taliban and scattering al-Qaeda, the Bush administration directed its attention and resources towards Iraq. Al-Qaeda, which was on the ropes from late 2001 to 2003, was given a new lease on life when the United States removed the secular dictator in Mesopotamia. Instead of delivering a liberal democracy in the heart of the Middle East, America removed the lid of a cauldron of sectarian hatred and created an opening for al-Qaeda to exploit.
Fortunately for the United States, the logic of al-Qaeda directed it not towards making inroads with Iraqis but towards sowing discord among them. Once ordinary Iraqis repelled al-Qaeda (much more responsible for the defeat of the group than the overhyped surge strategy implemented by General David Petraeus), the terrorist group was exposed as unwanted even by the most desperate of Muslims and Arabs. It was permanently discredited as the purveyor of violence against Muslims.
Gerges makes the logical point that Bin Laden's ideology was already discredited immediately after 9/11, when the umma failed to rise up and fight America. Bin Laden appears to have sincerely believed that Afghanistan would become what it was in the wake of the Soviet invasion in late 1979: a magnet for mujahedeen to fight against crusaders. However, Bin Laden overlooked several factors. First, as Gerges writes, "there was a relative consensus among Muslims about the legitimacy of the Afghan resistance against Soviet occupation." While Muslims around the world may not have approved of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, they made a distinction between America's actions, provoked as it was by the murder of the 3,000 noncombatants, and the unprovoked Soviet attack. In addition, Bin Laden had ignored the Taliban's warnings to focus on defeating internal enemies instead of going after the United States. As a result, "on the morning after the attacks, he and his uninformed hosts faced America's wrath on their own," Gerges says. "His gamble on the umma and fellow jihadis coming to his rescue was a losing one."
This points to Gerges's claim, the Taliban would not offer sanctuary again to al-Qaeda were it to return to power in Afghanistan. The Taliban have spent a decade attempting to recover a country they already controlled before Bin Laden attacked the United States. They are unlikely to welcome back with open arms the terrorist group indirectly responsible for their loss of power.
Though for some reason, he says he is not offering policy prescriptions; Gerges does just that at the end of his book. The United States should end its war on terror, which has long outlived whatever usefulness it had, he writes. At this time, intervention in the Muslim world is only going to inspire new attackers. On this point, as with so many others, Gerges shows sound judgment. Though American policy makers are unlikely to listen, they cannot say they were not fairly warned. The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda offers more than enough evidence for its claims.