The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda
By Fawaz Gerges
(Oxford University Press, 2011) 259 pages

Reviewed by Joshua Sinai, Ph.D., Associate Professor/Research, Virginia Tech Research Center, Arlington, VA

In The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda Fawaz Gerges claims that “A gulf has emerged between the perception of the threat posed by al-Qaeda and its actual capabilities, and this gulf continues to widen.” (p. 3) Even in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death, Mr. Gerges contends, “al-Qaeda continues to have a hold over the Western imagination, in part because the West will not let it go.” (p. 4) Others, however, might disagree with such simplistic and sweeping generalizations that pervade Mr. Gerges’ book, which are intended to buttress his argument that the United States-led “war on terror” is exaggerated, overblown and misplaced, and that it must withdraw from the Middle East to enable what he terms post-Islamist “democratic” movements that [supposedly] reject al-Qaeda’s virulent ideology to assume control of their own destinies.

Lebanese-born Mr. Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations at the London School of Economics, who had previously taught at Sarah Lawrence College, is a prolific author and prominent “talking head” on television news programs in the West and the Middle East, so his views deserve attention. They also warrant close scrutiny, however, because of the biased political agenda that is present throughout the book.

There is much to criticize in Mr. Gerges’ analysis. To begin, he contends that the “Arab Spring” of 2011” has not only shaken the very foundation of the regional authoritarian order but threatened to unravel the standard terrorism narrative.” (p. 4) Not only was al-Qaeda Central “notably absent,” he argues, but neither its “jihadist slogans…nor its violent tactics found a receptive audience among the millions of Arab protestors.” (p. 4) Although his book was published prior to the multi-stage Egyptian parliamentary elections, as of late December 2011, the Islamist parties won nearly 70 percent of the vote, with the the Salafist Al-Nour Party winning more than 20 percent and its ally, the Muslim Brotherhood, receiving 47 percent, demonstrating that contrary to Mr. Gerges’ assertion, al-Qaeda’s ideology will be assured of a “receptive audience” in the “New Egypt.” At the same time, the secular and liberal parties were trounced in the elections.

The results of the Egyptian election also serve to refute Mr. Gerges’ assertion that the “The Arab revolutionaries are post-Islamists in that while religion-based activists…represent an important segment of the protesters, they are dwarfed by centrists, nationalists, liberals, and non-affiliated activists.” (p. 5) He even contends that while “the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis will be a force to reckon with in the post-autocratic order, they have little in common with al-Qaeda and will become one among many competing forces.” (p. 5) In reality, however, especially in countries such as Egypt, it is, in fact, the “centrists” and the “liberals” who now worry that the Islamists, who bear little resemblance to Mr. Gerges’ “post-Islamists,” will now be able to implement their theocratic agendas over their society, just as the Ayatollah Khomeini-led revolutionaries in 1979 easily marginalized the moderates who had joined their opposition in the hopes of bringing about a new “reformed” post-Shah regime in Iran.

The rest of Mr. Gerges’ book is an attempt to portray post-bin Laden al-Qaeda as “composed of roving bands limited to the mountains and valleys of Pakistan tribal areas along the Afghan border…remote areas in Yemen along the Saudi border, and the wastes of the African Sahara and the Maghreb. Its actions show a consistent pattern of ineptitude. Its leadership relies, increasingly on inexperienced freelancers or unskilled recruits.”(p. 5) Here, again, the reality is quite different, as al-Qaeda has succeeded in reconstituting itself in Pakistan, whether in the country’s tribal or urban areas. This was clearly demonstrated by the safe haven provided by the country’s government that enabled bin Laden to live with his extended family at their luxurious compound in Abbottabad, the continued ability of al Qaeda’s remaining leaders to remain in the country, the emergence to leadership positions of capable younger leaders such as Adnan Shukrijumah, who had studied computers and chemistry in America, and the ability of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to expand the areas under its control in Yemen’s ungoverned regions.

Another of Mr. Gerges’ objectives is to undermine the rationale for a robust counterterrorism campaign by the United States government. It appears more important to him that “America’s reputation in the Muslim world” has been “damaged” by the increase in the use of Predator drone attacks against al-Qaeda leaders and operatives than the need to use such unmanned aerial means to destroy al-Qaeda’s central network in Afghanistan and Pakistan, without needlessly putting U.S. troops in harm’s way on Pakistani soil. (p. 26) The reality, of course, is that Islamists in the Muslim world will always oppose the United States regardless of its use of drone attacks against al-Qaeda.

Moreover, he claims, quite unfairly and without providing any examples, that President Obama’s “national security team seems to group al-Qaeda with the Taliban, particularly the Pakistani Taliban.”(p. 26). Mr. Gerges must be unaware of the use of sophisticated social network analyses tools by the U.S. intelligence community that are able to distinguish among the leaders and operatives of the various insurgent groups operating in that region. On this point, in fact, Mr. Gerges proceeds to contradict himself later in the book when he asserts the existence of a “marriage of convenience between the Taliban fighters and al-Qaeda operatives” which “hold[s] as long as the West confuses and conflates them, and wages all-out war against them.” (p. 183). Thus, in accordance with his earlier claim, aren’t al-Qaeda and the Taliban supposed to be distinct from each other? The reality, of course, is that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are interlinked in their ideology and objectives, with the Taliban’s ambitions, contrary to Mr. Gerges’ contention (on page 181) that it is limited to the Afghanistan-Pakistan area of operations, as demonstrated by the Taliban’s involvement in directing Faisal Shahzad’s operation to bomb Times Square in early May 2010, which should not be viewed as a “one time” affair.

The book concludes with Mr. Gerges’ recommendations that U.S. policymakers must “cease the over-reliance of militarism and excessive use of force” in counterterrorism and withdraw U.S. forces from Muslim lands in order to bring a “closure to the War on Terror” that will lead to a dubunking of the “terrorism narrative” that al-Qaeda is exercising on the “American imagination.” (p. 201) America must also “heed the millions of peaceful Arabs who rebelled against their oppressive governments and called for freedom and open society.” (p. 201) Finally, Mr. Gerges also contends that “the widespread Muslim hostility against the United States” is due to the “excessive influence (more like a veto power) that Israel exercises over U.S. Mideast policy.” (p. 205). While such a characterization can be challenged, Mr. Gerge’s contention is moot since Arab rejectionists oppose any peace negotiations with the Jewish state even when Israel is willing to offer extensive concessions because they reject any claims to its legitimacy.

So many of Mr. Gerges’ arguments can be challenged as partisan propaganda that his book cannot be recommended as a serious work of impartial scholarship.