In the year since Osama bin Laden’s death, it has been a comforting thought for Westerners to say that he failed. And that’s certainly true in terms of al-Qaeda, whose scorched-earth jihad tactics alienated Muslims along with everyone else. But in terms of bin Laden’s broader goal of moving the Islamic world away from Western influence, he has done better than we might like to think.
Egypt is a case in point: This has been a year of mostly nonviolent democratic revolution. But it has brought to power some Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood groups that share common theological roots with bin Laden. And the al-Qaeda goal of driving the “apostate,” pro-American President Hosni Mubarak from power has been achieved. ...
And the battle is still raging in Yemen, the place that bin Laden believed offered his best chance of victory. The United States just decided to step up its drone war there, which is a sure sign that al-Qaeda poses a significant, continuing threat. [my emphasis]
Marcy Wheeler in We Drone Strike, Ergo We Are at WarEmptywheel 04/28/2012 sums up Ignatius' analytical logic: "David Ignatius, DC insider, says we’re ramping up drone strikes, ergo al Qaeda must pose a significant, continuing threat." Courtier journalism at its "best", in other words.
This idea that Bin Laden is dead and Al Qaida is devastated but Al Qaida still represents a terrible and growing global threat to the United States is so bizarre and delusional that it's advocates have a hard time even pretending to believe it. In a column devoted to the notion that anything that happens in Muslim-majorities countries that even slightly irritates the US is a terrorist threat from Bin Laden's Ghost, Ignatius the Very Serious Person also writes:
As I reported last month, bin Laden was so worried that killing Muslims had tainted al-Qaeda’s image that he proposed rebranding the group with a different name. What bothered bin Laden, he wrote, was that "al-Qaeda describes a military base with fighters without a broader mission to unify the nation."
Al-Qaeda couldn’t make the transition from violent jihad to nonviolent Islamist politics. That wasn’t its DNA. Bin Laden continued to plan suicide operations against America and its political leaders, and he beseeched Atiyah to find “a brother distinguished by his good manners, integrity, courage and secretiveness, who can operate in the U.S.” Basically, he wanted to keep killing Americans but stop killing Muslims.
This theme of internal reform, which would halt the Muslim bloodshed, is clear in a December 2010 admonition from Atiyah and another deputy, Abu Yahya al-Libi, to the Pakistani Taliban movement known as the TTP: "We stress on the fact that real reform is the duty of all, and to succeed we should look for and correct our actions and avoid these grave mistakes."
According to that, Bin Laden himself, leader of the Al Qaida group that carried out the 9/11 attacks, was so disgusted with the groups that now call themselves "Al Qaida" that before his death a year ago he wanted to distance himself from the name "Al Qaida" because he thought they were ruining his brand. But those same groups and every other Muslim political groups that somehow bothers Washington is a continuation of the Bin Laden/Al Qaida threat.
And it doesn't make jack for sense.
That doesn't prevent him from expanding on that spin in the Newshour interview:
So, from our standpoint, the best thing that happened is that this violent terrorist means of jihad, means of striking against foreign influence in the Muslim world has been discredited.
What you see is still strong is the idea that bin Laden and so many other Muslims have that Western influence is too pervasive. They want it out. And so we have seen in these Arab uprisings over the last year a continuing force for that idea, which was an idea that bin Laden had too.
Making this argument also means ignoring real history, a practice in which our Very Serious People are experienced. Bin Laden may have been all kinds of evil. But the reason he and his fanatical followers originally focused on the US as the "far enemy" that had to be their priority target was that after the Gulf War, American troops remained stationed in Saudi Arabia. And the US carried imposed a major sanctions regime on Iraq for over a decade, with more or less continual bombing, including the very intensive bombing of Operation Desert Fox - surely one of the strangest operational names the Pentagon ever came up with because of its association with Ernst Rommel - in late 1998. All that in addition to the fact that they saw the US as a prime supporter of unpopular and dictatorial regimes like Mubarak's in Egypt. Even if one defends every single one of those actions as necessary and desirable, it makes no sense to ignore that they also included undesirable repercussions. Like Bin Laden's and Al Qaida's view of their jihadist mission.
So maybe it's time for a serious, practical reassessment of the amount of intervention the US is carrying out, especially the drone strikes which may look "surgical" and clean to Americans, but look like war to the people in the village where the bombs explode.
I'll have to give Judy Woodruff credit, here, though. She does press the point in a polite way that Ignatius' argument really doesn't make sense. After getting him to agree that a party like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt that is using a parliamentary path to power doesn't represent the same kind of threat Bin Laden's Al Qaida did, we get this exchange:
JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that how you would see it, Brian Fishman, that it's there, but it's not the direct threat to the U.S. that al-Qaida has been?
BRIAN FISHMAN: Yes.
I think, in many ways, the Arab spring revolutions, especially their -- in Egypt, where it was a relatively peaceful revolution, was a clear repudiation of al-Qaida's ideology and strategy for changing the political dynamics in the Middle East.
But I think it's also important to note that while there is sort of a shared intellectual lineage between the Muslim Brotherhood and groups like al-Qaida, today, al-Qaida looks at groups like the Muslim Brotherhood as its foremost enemy, even more so than the United States, because it sees groups like that as competing for the same constituencies that it wants to lead.
And al-Qaida knows that it's not going to lose a lot of supporters to the United States directly, but it will lose supporters to the Muslim Brotherhood if groups like that are able to demonstrate that they can seize political power, and really influence the way that governance is structured in that part of the world.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And does -- and, David, in a final few seconds, what posture then does the United States have in that struggle between al-Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood?
DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, we're going to keep going after -- the U.S. will keep going after al-Qaida wherever it finds people who are dedicated to the -- violent change and killing of Americans.
Which brings us back to Marcy's characterization of Ignatius' argument: "David Ignatius, DC insider, says we’re ramping up drone strikes, ergo al Qaeda must pose a significant, continuing threat."
For the Very Serious People, the existence of the Long War Against Terrorism creates its own justification.