After Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s November 9 attacks in Amman, Jordan, public discussion and official statements in the West carried a clear sense of the tide turning against al-Qaeda and its allies. Some media headlines even smacked of triumphalism: “Zarqawi misjudges impact of killing Muslims;” “Amman attacks show al-Qaeda can only hit soft targets;” “Zarqawi’s Big Mistake;” and “thousands of Jordanian damn al-Qaeda” are a few examples. Two weeks after al-Zarqawi’s strike, much public and official commentary in the West concluded that al-Qaeda had suffered a self-inflicted strategic defeat because of the Amman attacks.
This article is not meant to refute these conclusions, but rather to suggest that on the basis of al-Qaeda’s strategic design for war against America and its allies, an assessment of the facts pertinent to the Amman attacks can yield a result far different from that so far arrived at in the West. In the first instance, al-Qaeda’s organizational strength appears to have emerged unscathed from the attacks. The post-attack period finds, for example, that the group has suffered no significant manpower loss, no telling blows to its logistics, communications, or procurement capabilities, no loss of the safe haven in Iraq from where the attack was staged, no retaliatory offensive against its Afghan strongholds, and no loss of hard-to-replace leaders. In terms of volunteers flowing to al-Qaeda and its allies, nothing that occurred in Amman can put more than a minor dent in the religious inspiration and drawing power derived from the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.
In regard to public attitudes toward al-Qaeda, al-Zarqawi and his al-Qaeda superiors surely judge that they suffered no great loss because of the Jordan attacks, especially after al-Zarqawi publicly apologized for the loss of Muslim lives and clearly explained that, in terms of the attack’s intention, Muslims were not targeted. True, al-Qaeda’s assumptions may be wrong; it is possible that the attacks will yield a permanent loss in public sympathies—only time will tell. From al-Qaeda’s perspective, however, the days after the Amman attacks found Iraq still occupied and no changes in U.S. foreign policies toward the Islamic world and—rightly or wrongly—bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, al-Zarqawi, et. al believe that as long as these realities stand, the appeal and popularity of the mujahedin fighting their impact can only rise. It also is reasonable to think that al-Qaeda’s leaders are getting a good laugh over the belief of Western governments and media that the hundreds of thousands who turned out to demonstrate against al-Zarqawi in Jordan represent the true sentiment of Jordanians. All the mujahedin, leaders and foot soldiers alike, know that the security services of every Muslim king, dictator, and coup-installed general can produce “angry-crowds-on-demand,” ranging in numbers from hundreds to hundreds of thousands. Indeed, bin Laden and others would welcome the West continuing to delude itself by believing such Potemkin demonstrations as those in Jordan are meaningful expressions of Muslim opinion.
In terms of advancing al-Qaeda’s strategic agenda, it is unlikely that the organization’s leaders and its allies look at the Amman attacks in isolation. Instead, they probably view the Jordan attacks as the latest in a six-month string of successful offensive operations that show the emerging Western view that al-Qaeda and its allies are spent forces. Most satisfying is the West’s consensus that al-Qaeda has been so weakened that it can only hit such “soft targets” as hotels, restaurants, buses, open-air markets, subways, etc. While there is no denying these facilities have been struck, the more important reality is that the series of attacks since July 2005 have occurred in places where intense and effective internal security networks had to be defeated before the soft targets could be accessed and attacked. Al-Qaeda and its allies struck twice in London in July; at Sharm al-Shaykh, Egypt, later in month; in Bali, Indonesia and New Delhi, India in October, and in Jordan in November. It seems likely that al-Qaeda leaders are satisfied with an operational capability that produced three attacks in well-policed capital cities—two of which are, in fact, the capitals of police states—and two heavily protected resorts which are important foreign exchange-earners for their countries. The second London attack, on July 21, may have been the most satisfying because it showed that the best urban security force in the West could be beaten at its highest level of alert and fullest state of deployment.
From al-Qaeda’s perspective, a second yield from the attacks can be viewed as a significant strategic advance. In each of the countries attacked since July 2005, the governments have adopted stricter anti-terrorism legislation and/or engaged in severe security crackdowns. In India, Jordan, and Egypt large groups of the “usual subjects” were rounded up and face an uncertain fate—the new, fragile rule of Jordan’s King Abdullah II can ill afford this—while new laws in Britain and Indonesia have elicited opposition from a broad spectrum of Muslim organizations, and, at least in Britain, an increasing sense that the government is discriminating against Muslim citizens. The recent, serendipitous occurrence of three weeks of nightly rioting in France—many rioters were Muslim immigrants or their children—also complement al-Qaeda’s London attacks by increasing anti-Muslim attitudes in France and across Europe, a trend that has been developing since the al-Qaeda attack in Madrid, Spain, in March, 2003. If the rioting produces new anti-terrorism legislation in France and elsewhere in Europe, as have previous al-Qaeda attacks in the UK, Spain, and Turkey, so much the better because they are likely to be deemed anti-Islamic by European Muslims.
If, for the sake of argument, it is assumed that the foregoing is a plausible alternative analysis of the results of the al-Qaeda-associated bombings since July 2005, a possible conclusion is that the West is analyzing those events from its perspective, not al-Qaeda’s, and is thereby missing some important points. The most obvious mistake is to judge that popular demonstrations in Jordan—or elsewhere in the Middle East—mean what they would mean in North American or European societies. It is more likely that the Jordanian crowds were nothing more than an impressive demonstration of a talented and ruthless security service’s ability to turn out large crowds, complete with professionally made banners and placards, when the king wants them. Moreover, the West’s belief—now close to being the always-dangerous “common wisdom” —that al-Qaeda’s capabilities are diminished because of its strikes on so-called “soft targets” tends to forget or even ignore the reality that al-Qaeda’s access to such targets in the last half-year has been possible only after operatives have beaten skillful, pervasive, and often brutal security services. From this angle, al-Qaeda’s clandestine operational capabilities remain formidable.
Finally, and most dangerous, the United States and the West may be mistaken to conclude that the 2005 attacks mean anything regarding al-Qaeda’s ability to attack inside the United States. Each of the 2005 strikes fit nicely as a continuation of al-Qaeda’s secondary campaign against states assisting America in the Iraq and Afghan wars, the start of which bin Laden and Zawahiri announced in 2002. From this perspective, there is no logical reason to believe al-Qaeda’s attacks on what the West deems “soft targets” indicate an inability to attack in America. Indeed, it would be a classic and possibly fatal piece of analysis to conclude that al-Qaeda and its allies have chosen to attack in the UK, Indonesia, Egypt, India, and Jordan because they cannot attack in the continental United States.
The war against al-Qaeda and its allies is likely to not only be a long one, but also a subtle one. It behooves the West at all times, therefore, to analyze the war’s events with one eye focused on the enemies’ perspective of how the struggle is unfolding. While it is true that there is no certainty that the enemies’ perspective is accurate—and it does not merit empathy of sympathy—the fact remains that he and his allies will plan and act on the basis of their analytic conclusions not ours. As always, the ability to consistently think like the enemy remains an indispensable component of the West’s ability to wage war successfully.