It’s occurred to me over the past couple of years (probably because I read it somewhere) that Al-Qaeda’s strength comes from the support it enjoys from many Muslims in the Middle East, and that, unlike Al-Qaeda’s members and core supporters, much of that support rests on Al-Qaeda’s claims about ‘western infidels’, claims which tend to be reinforced by U.S. foreign policy, especially over the past seven years. In other words, while Al-Qaeda’s strongest supporters genuinely hate the western world and want to see it vanish, most of the support it enjoys is ‘conditional’ – in the sense that, if U.S. foreign policy changed to undercut Al-Qaeda’s argument (by, for example, getting out of Iraq as soon as possible), much of that support would weaken or vanish entirely. When that support vanishes, it delegitimizes and marginalizes Al-Qaeda (and related groups), making it more difficult for them to recruit and raise funds.
In fact, support for Al-Qaeda has plummeting (really plummeting, not just declining). Andrew Sullivan links to pieces by Lawrence Wright and Fareed Zakaria discussing the drop in support for Al-Qaeda in the Muslim world:
The Simon Fraser study notes that the decline in terrorism appears to be caused by many factors, among them successful counterterrorism operations in dozens of countries and infighting among terror groups. But the most significant, in the study’s view, is the “extraordinary drop in support for Islamist terror organizations in the Muslim world over the past five years.” These are largely self-inflicted wounds. The more people are exposed to the jihadists’ tactics and world view, the less they support them.
From the Zakaria piece. Yes, I know I’m quoting a piece from its quote in another blog. (Zakaria is discussing a study out of Simon Fraser University which deserves, but has not gotten, major play in the press. I strongly recommend reading it.)
An Al-Qaeda fanatic’s opinion won’t be changed by changes in U.S. foreign policy, and to him anything may be done to further Al-Qaeda’s goals – because that is the very nature of fundamentalism. That leads to tactics that most of the ‘conditional’ supporters of Al-Qaeda find repugnant, and eventually the indiscriminate murder of innocent civilians (in many cases, other Muslims) – which of course weakens support for such outfits. I still believe that a fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy is the best long term policy to prevent Islamic terrorist organizations from becoming as powerful as Al-Qaeda has been, but in the meantime the terrorists seem to be doing a pretty good job of marginalizing themselves.