Temporary Columns: Al Qaeda and the Paradox of Engagement

by Ram Manikkalingam & Pablo Policzer

Wtc_attackOn September 11, 2001 Al Qaeda conducted an attack that ‘shocked and awed’ the United States. The US responded with a military attack on Al Qaeda at its center: Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. It also pursued a further strategy of tightening the noose around Al Qaeda’s funding, arms supplies, recruitment, ideologues, and supporters. Notwithstanding the overthrow of the Taliban regime and the expulsion of Al Qaeda from its base in Afghanistan, six years on the US war against Al Qaeda has reached a stalemate. Osama Bin Laden remains at large, Al Qaeda has not been defeated, and there is growing speculation that it possibly cannot be defeated, at least in the near term. Opposition to the United States and support for Al Qaeda have both increased over the past several years. Moreover, Al Qaeda has learned how to disperse and survive in response to US military pressures, and it is arguably a more formidable adversary, and harder to annihilate, than in the past.

On September 10th, the eve of the sixth year of the attack by Al Qaeda, I thought it might be appropriate to summarize and link a paper I wrote with my colleague Prof. Pablo Policzer for a conference a few months back on a different approach to Al Qaeda, prompted by our dissatisfaction with what we see as the two dominant approaches – fight smarter or talk harder. (short version & long version)

The first response deplores the distraction of Iraq and the dispersion of US national security attention away from the focus on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. This response argues that the current US approach, especially on Iraq, has multiplied the number of enemies poised against it, weakened its position in the world, and undermined its own citizens’ security. The second type of response urges recognizing Al Qaeda as a rational actor with clear political demands, and calls for negotiations with the group over these. The argument here is that such political engagement offers more promise than a prolonged military standoff.

By contrast to both of these positions, we argue that Al Qaeda’s dispersion needs to be taken more seriously as a political, military, organizational, and analytical challenge. Paradoxically, the same dispersal strategies that have allowed the center of Al Qaeda to survive by making it harder to target militarily, make it easier to bypass politically. In other words, the very adaptation that has led to the calls for talking to Al Qaeda – its flexibility and resilience – is also the strongest reason for not doing so at its center. Instead, engagement should take place at the periphery. Devolving engagement in this way requires disaggregating demands, evading global divides, and multiplying local and regional responses.

Understanding the organizational, political, and military challenges of engaging Al Qaeda will shed light on the more general challenge of engaging armed groups. Al Qaeda is not the exception to this challenge (a position implicitly shared by the advocates of military as well as political engagement of Al Qaeda at the center), but the latest, if most complicated, instance of it.

A106_s1Seen this way, the conflict between Al Qaeda, and the United States and its allies, begins to look less like a global clash between two formidable opponents, and more like a series of overlapping local, national, and regional conflicts with multiple players, some more connected than others. Similarly, Al Qaeda begins to look less like a single transnational terrorist organization capable of carrying out devastating attacks anywhere in the world, and more like a number of armed groups that are more or less allied to one another (and to some states), confronting and combating a number of states that are more or less allied with one another (as well as to some armed groups). These conflicts are more numerous than the single contest of the United States against Al Qaeda, but they are also possibly more amenable to resolution. This is because some of these armed groups may themselves be more willing to resolve their conflicts, and because we are more familiar with the tools — security, military, political, humanitarian and economic — that can be applied locally, nationally, and regionally in such cases.

Building on this notion, the focus of our attentions should not be a single Al Qaeda center, albeit with many peripheries. It should be multiple centers and peripheries, with varying degrees of attachment to Al Qaeda and to Osama Bin Laden, and with varying degrees of commitments to the political, ideological, or social projects espoused by them. Each of the numerous armed groups – such as the Taliban, Abu Sayyaf or even Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia – can be distinguished by its organizational structure, aims and capacities from Al Qaeda. And each of their goals may, depending on the shifting political and military context, range from clinics to treat the sick to the global caliphate to convert the unbelievers. Similarly, each of the problems, such as democratic transition, immigration, pluralism, and state-building, that are lumped together, can and should be disentangled from the single divide between Islam and the West that the conflict with Al Qaeda suggests. And should be addressed autonomously, on its own terms. All of these challenges are familiar to us, not because we have always been successful in addressing them, but because we have dealt with them before in other parts of the globe.