At the Aspen Security Forum this past summer, Peter Bergen, CNN’s intrepid national-security analyst and a director at the New America Foundation, gave a talk titled: “Time to Declare Victory: Al Qaeda Is Defeated.”
Since then, AQ and/or its affiliates have launched lethal attacks on American diplomatic compounds in Libya and Yemen, hoisted an al-Qaeda flag above the U.S. embassy in Cairo, resurged in Iraq, and put boots on the ground in Syria. They have bombed Christian churches in Nigeria and the mosques of Sufi Muslims in Mali. They have battled African Union troops in Somalia. Within the last week, Taliban terrorists shot Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani, for the “crime” of advocating education for girls, and bombed the office of moderate tribal elders in northwest Pakistan, killing at least 17 people.
In this light, it seems obvious to me that reports of AQ’s demise are at least premature. And I’m not alone. “Obama was out saying, Hey, look, we have got al-Qaeda back on its heels,” investigative reporter Bob Woodward said on Sunday. “Well, anyone in the intelligence committee knows that’s not true.”
Bergen, however, is sticking to his story. And he is not alone. On Tuesday, he and Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Lynch III (ret.), a Distinguished Research Fellow at the National Defense University, defended the AQ-is-defeated thesis in a debate with Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, two of my Foundation for Defense of Democracies colleagues. Bergen and Lynch argued that al-Qaeda’s offensive capabilities have been degraded and that without Osama bin Ladin, the organization lacks a “mythical mystique.”
That’s true as far as it goes. But degraded is not defeated. And Bergen goes further:
Even terrorists influenced by al Qaeda–like ideas have only killed 17 people in the United States since 9/11. About the same number of Americans are killed every year by dogs. In other words, in the United States during the past decade, dogs have been around ten times more deadly than jihadist terrorists. To win World War II, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin did not feel it necessary to kill every Nazi. We should not impose a higher standard in the battle against al Qaeda.
Here, in my view, is what that misses: Ideas matter. The Nazis had ideas — vile ideas, but ideas nonetheless. Not even the most rabid canines have that. Roosevelt and Churchill — and Stalin, too, I suppose — were keenly aware that the Nazi threat was at least as much ideological as military.
Indeed, in January of 1943, at the end of the Casablanca Conference, Roosevelt announced that he and Churchill had decided to adopt a policy crucial to Allied victory and Axis defeat — a policy, Roosevelt said, that would “not mean the destruction of the population of Germany, Italy, or Japan,” but would “mean the destruction of the philosophies in those countries which are based on conquest and the subjugation of other people.”
The jihadi philosophy/ideology is — no less than Nazism — “based on conquest and the subjugation of other people.” The late Father Richard John Neuhaus aptly defined jihadism as a religiously inspired ideology built on the teaching “that it is the moral obligation of all Muslims to employ whatever means necessary in order to compel the world’s submission to Islam.”
Most American and European leaders refuse even to discuss jihadism openly, much less pledge to destroy it. Some are concerned that to do so will offend Muslims by the tens of millions, turning them against us. Others, I suspect, find it impossible to accept that, in the 21st century, there are still those who believe in divinely endorsed wars, have no aversion to violence, and see conquest as the most virtuous of pursuits. “Ideology,” Hillary Clinton said not long after becoming secretary of state in 2009, “is so yesterday.” Those who see America as the “enemy of God” are not convinced.
Proponents of the AQ-is-defeated theory also ignore the fact that Saudi petro-princes continue to spend billions to spread Wahhabism, a strain of Islam that disdains freedom and promotes hatred of infidels and apostates. Wahhabism plants the seeds of jihadism.
And of course it should be clear by now that the regime that rules Iran embraces a jihadi ideology. Iran’s rulers are Shia, a minority within the Muslim world, which makes their aspiration to lead a pan-Islamic global revolution against the West challenging. But that is their goal — a goal they have reaffirmed repeatedly over the past 33 years; a goal that will be greatly facilitated should they acquire nuclear weapons. It is in pursuit of this goal that they are forcing average Iranians to absorb the economic pain of intensifying sanctions.
Roosevelt and Churchill grasped what too many analysts in government, academia, media, and think tanks do not: To prevail against America’s enemies, kinetic warfare is necessary but insufficient. An ideological war, a war of ideas, also must be waged. And on that front, we have not yet begun to fight.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.