Today's date:
Spring 2008

Al-Qaida Not a Threat When US Leaves Iraq

Olivier Roy is research director at the French National Center for Scientific Research and a lecturer at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris. He is author of Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah and Islamist Networks: The Pakistan-Afghan Connection.

Paris -- Now that Sen. John McCain is the formal presidential nominee of the Republican Party, he promises to put Iraq and the "global war on terror" on the front burner again in American politics.

The key debate in the United States election will be, then, "What will happen if the US troops leave Iraq?" McCain and Sen. Barack Obama have already sparred over whether al-Qaida will be strengthened or weakened if the US withdraws. Sen. Hillary Clinton also has pledged to draw down troops if she wins.

Of course, nobody knows exactly. But I can tell what will not happen: al-Qaida taking power and establishing an Islamic state.

Too many in the West persist in seeing al-Qaida as a territorialized, Middle East organization bent on expelling the Christians and Jews from the region in order to create a dar al-Islam ( land of Islam), under the umbrella of a caliphate.

But al-Qaida is not a continuation of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas or Hezbollah. It is a non-territorial global entity, which has never tried to implement an Islamic state, including in Afghanistan where it found sanctuary for years in the 1990s.

It is pointless thinking of al-Qaida as a political organization seeking to conquer and rule a territory. Al-Qaida recruits among disenfranchised youth, most of them without direct connections with the embattled countries of the Middle East. Second-generation Western Muslims, converts, Saudis, Egyptians and Moroccans make the bulk of the al-Qaida traveling jihadists, not Afghans, Palestinians or Iraqis. Al-Qaida does not have the necessary local rooting for taking power.

Al-Qaida's strategy is twofold. It wants to confront the big boys, or rather the big boy, the US, directly, striking out against America's power, relying not on the actual damage inflicted (financial cost, number of dead) but on image, media impact and the terror effect.

The mirror effect of those who claim a clash of civilizations, of course, intensifies the impact. In fact, al-Qaida needs those who demonize it, because it makes it what it is not: the vanguard of the "Muslim wrath."

Al-Qaida goes where the Americans are while the US Army goes where Washington thinks it might day.

Secondly, al-Qaida seeks to hijack existing conflicts and give them a new significance by making them part of the global jihad against the West.

However, in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan and now Iraq, the Islamist internationalist groups have been unsuccessful in diverting local and national conflicts, playing only the role of auxiliaries.

The key actors of the local conflicts are the local actors: the Taliban in Afghanistan, the different Sunni and Shia groups in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon. These groups are not under the leadership of al-Qaida. Al-Qaida has only been able to implant foreign volunteers, who usually do not understand local politics and find support among the local population only as long as they fight a common enemy, such as American troops in Iraq.

But their respective agenda is totally different: Local actors, Islamist or not, want a political solution on their own terms. They do not want chaos or global jihad. As soon as there is a discrepancy between "the policy of the worst" waged by al-Qaida and a possible local political settlement, local actors choose the local settlement.

The Bosnians got rid of the radical foreign fighters once they achieved their independence; the Taliban rank and file refused to die for al-Qaida when the Western forces landed in Afghanistan after 9/11. In Iraq, many among the Sunnis, including the Salafists, resent not only al-Qaida tactics of indiscriminate suicide bombings, but also the strategy of confronting the Shias. The fact is, al-Qaida plays a role in the deterioration of the conflicts but is unable to succeed in coordinating them. Local, national, tribal or sectarian religious channels are stronger.

Al-Qaida may recruit some local organizations, acting within a limited area or linguistic region, with their own history. These groups then claim affiliation with al-Qaida. They are to be found in Indonesia (Jemah Islamiyya); in the northern Sahel (the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which in January, 2007, changed its name to the Al-Qaida Organization in the Islamic Maghreb); Northern Lebanon (third-generation but still uprooted Palestinian refugees); in the Sunni triangle of Iraq (with the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's group); and in Saudi Arabia and Yemen (Al-Qaida Organization in the Arabic Peninsula).

These organizations do not need al-Qaida in order to recruit or operate. If they have rallied to it, it is precisely because they have difficulty in defining or achieving a local objective (an Islamic state, for example). They become globalized, therefore, by default.

In short, there may be good reasons to stay in Iraq, but they have nothing to do with al-Qaida; they have more to do with a damage-control operation. If the US troops leave, there might be a civil war, there might be a growing Iranian influence, Iraq might be turned into a battlefield by proxies between Saudi Arabia and Iran. There could be a Sunni-controlled area, a Shia state and an independent Kurdistan, but no Qaidistan.

It would have been better to concentrate the forces on Afghanistan, which has been the real cradle of al-Qaida. If only part of the brains and armor devoted to the "surge" in Iraq had been devoted to Afghanistan, instead of the incessant turnover of disparaged NATO troops with little knowledge of the country, things would have been better.

But in Afghanistan, as anywhere else in the greater Middle East, there is no military solution, only a political solution by dealing with the local actors and dropping the senseless idea of a "global war on terror."