It is the question that countless intelligence specialists, academics, and heads of state are trying to answer, quo vadis,
al Qaeda? Whither goest thou? It is not merely what it will do next, but
whether progress is being made against this shadowy network and how long
it will take before it can be penetrated and destroyed?
The problem those in the West have in understanding al Qaeda is that it does
not function from what we would deem a recognizable political, economic or
ideological basis. It is not the identifiable ideology of communism, nor
the sheer quest for power of fascism. It is the nearly incomprehensible fanaticism
of a religion-based belief that America, the Jews, and the West in general
are a threat to Islam and its “holy jihad” to rule the world.
Some things we know. According to a recent report, Osama bin Laden is now
operating out of Iran with the blessings and assistance of its oligarchy
of ayatollahs. A look at the map reveals why. On one side of Iran is Afghanistan
and on the other is Iraq. Those who argue we should withdraw our troops and
disengage from the struggle to initiate democratic governments in both nations
are arguing for surrender to al Qaeda, our sworn enemy.
The Islamic jihad began in earnest in Iran in the late 1970s when the Shah
was overthrown and American diplomats were taken hostage. It escalated in
the 1980s when the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan (with the assistance
of the CIA) by a combination of local warriors supported by many young Saudis
who swarmed into Afghanistan and, in effect, took over the nation in the
form of the Taliban.
At the heart of al Qaeda has always been Saudi Arabian involvement. So why
is al Qaeda attacking within Saudi Arabia? Again, one has to understand the
roots of the jihad. It is Wahabism, the strict form of Islam with which the
House of Saud struck a bargain when it began its conquest of the Arabian
Peninsula in the last century. Bin Laden, a Saudi, is the living symbol of
As Dr. Walid Phares, a professor of Middle East Studies, recently noted,
the al Qaeda attacks within Saudi Arabia, previously directed against Westerners
such as the 1996 bombing of the Dhahran US military barracks, and now killing
Saudis and other Muslims living there, have been designed to force the Royal
family to make a choice between “its traditional inclination to Wahabism
and its realist ties to the United States.”
Dependent on petrodollars, the Saudis are playing a double game. Reportedly,
it has been cracking down on al Qaeda wherever it can find its members. Most
telling was the statement by Crown Prince Abdallah, a rhetorical declaration
of war against “clerics” who protect al Qaeda and legitimize its resort to
violence. He called them “intruders” and “enemies of the true path.”
They are not intruders. They are Saudis in the same way that virtually all
of those who destroyed the World Trade Center on 9-11 were Saudis. Inside
Saudi Arabia, Wahabism still rules.
Pushing the Saudis in the direction of disassociating from the very fanaticism
it has supported for generations, Michael Young, the chairman of the US government
Commission on Religious Freedom, said in late November that US policy is
that the Wahabi brand of Islam “is an ideology that is incompatible with
the war on terrorism.” Addressing the question of whether “Saudi Arabia is
a strategic threat,” the commission examined “the (Saudi) global propagation
“The Saudi royal family has shown it has no inclination for real reform,”
said Mai Yamani, a Saudi academic who has been threatened with arrest if
she returns home. Now the royal family must either divorce itself from its
decades of funding the worldwide spread of Wahabism through thousands of
mosques and madrasses or it must face its own extinction. Despite events
in Riyadh and elsewhere around the world, it is doubtful the Saudi ruling
family will truly change course.
Until and unless that happens, any indicator put forth as public relations
spin should be viewed with suspicion. Martin Indyk, a former Ambassador to
Israel, said, “We’ve struck a Faustian bargain, turning a blind eye to Saudi
Arabia’s domestic policies…and we’ve turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabian
efforts to export Wahabism.” That US policy, if the report of the Commission
on Religious Freedom is any indication, is dead. The Saudis know it.
Which brings us back to Osama bin Laden, whose new headquarters can be found
in Iran. The Iranians are Shiites. The Saudis are Sunnis. The struggle for
which branch will dominate Islam has been going on since the earliest years
of Islam. Iran is being squeezed now by US military power in the Middle East.
It is surrounded by nations that have aligned themselves with America and
the West. In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, to its north is Turkey and
to its south is Pakistan. It borders Turkmenistan, a satellite of the Russian
Federation whose future is tied the development of its oil reserves.
Thus, al Qaeda, though capable of having cells at work in any nation, is
now isolated in terms of its leadership. Add to this, what must surely be
a 24/7 search for Osama bin Laden to kill him and his associates, and one
can begin to see the beginnings of the end of this movement. That said, the
end will likely not come soon. One can project this struggle out twenty to
fifty years without risking being wrong.
Its individual cells are essentially on their own. And the bombings, which
are its primary weapon, have turned much of the world against it. It is now
killing Muslims. Bin Laden reportedly has trimmed his beard and taken to
wearing the black clerical garb of an Iranian mullah. He’s running out of
friends and the Iranian Islamic Revolution is running out of time. Within
Iran, the vast majority of its population wants to oust the ayatollahs from
One factor remains as the ultimate threat and that is the irrational devotion
of the adherents of al Qaeda to wreak terror upon a world that is passing
them by. Any group whose members are willing, eager, to kill themselves for
its objectives remains a potent enemy. One can only hope that, within Islam,
there are Muslims who do not support its jihad and who will participate in
Quo vadis al Qaeda? Not tomorrow or next year, but as surely as the Sun will rise, its days are numbered.
Alan Caruba is the author of Warning Signs, published by Merril Press. His weekly commentaries are posted on the Internet site of The National Anxiety Center.