How to defeat Al Qaeda

The cover of Bruce Riedel’s The Search for Al Qaeda shows a group of armed men working their way up a hillside overlooking a beautiful valley that stretches away to rolling hills. It captures the wonder and the tragedy of Afghanistan in one frame.

The book itself is similarly crisp, packing a wide-ranging history of Al Qaeda and its key figures into only 150 pages of moderate size print. It is penned by an ex-CIA man of thirty years service who was frequently closely involved with the figures and events painted in the book, but not so closely as to make the reader fear it is more a justification of his career than a fair account of events.

The Search for Al Qaeda - book coverThe book traces the birth, rise and then stuttering of Al Qaeda, which has lost its unmolested bases in Pakistan, antagonised former supporters in Iraq with its brutality and yet does not appear to be about to concede defeat any point soon.

Some of the book covers familiar terrain, such as in recounting the huge levels of mistaken knowledge amongst the American population where a belief in a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 has survived the discrediting of what little evidence was ever presented to try to make the claim. Riedel approvingly quotes ex-Senator Max Cleland saying, “Attacking Iraq after 9/11 was like attacking Mexico after Pearl Harbour”.

Riedel’s view is firmly that the Israel/Palestine dispute fuels much of the region’s terrorism directly or indirectly and that a peaceful settlement there is a necessary part of any plan to defeat terrorism in the region. Unlike others who have similarly looked at terrorism and sought to separate the violent extremists from mainstream Muslims, such as Robert Pape, Riedel does not extend his list of underlying contributory factors to include the presence of US military bases in Saudi Arabia. Yet the US presence there is often cited in public as one of the reasons for terrorism by Al Qaeda supporters and Pape’s study Dying to Win, which looks in detail at what makes people suicide bombers, places great weight on this factor.

Instead, Riedel gives as another contributing factor the disputes over Kashmir. He argues that the disputes between Pakistan and India, often made fraught and violent by the Kashmir question, explain Pakistan’s own role in frequently supporting terrorism and extremists. Faced with a large, well-armed neighbour, Pakistan has sought its own national security by wooing armed extreme Muslims for the unconventional military strength they could bring in a conflict with India and by backing extremists in Afghanistan in order to have an ally at its back in any possible conflict with India.

“Pakistan” is perhaps too simple a word to use to describe the complicated mix of military, security and political power bases and tensions in the country, which have at times seen opposition to the Taleban win out – as in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and more recently when the Taleban appeared to present a direct military threat to Pakistan’s cities.

Riedel places some of the blame for the state of Pakistan on others, in particular the American government for abandoning its interest in the country so quickly after the fall of the communist government in Afghanistan and so giving Pakistan the message that it could only secure its own future by looking to extremists. He is also very critical of the switch of American resources from Afghanistan to preparing to invade Iraq at a point at which, he contents, Al Qaeda was on the brink of major military defeat up against the Pakistan border.

The question of how close to capture Osama Bin Laden personally was at that moment has, and doubtless will continue to be, much debate. To a British reader it is striking how absent the issue is from assessment of Tony Blair’s record: where was he exercising influence on George W Bush to ensure that the job was finished in Afghanistan rather than neglected in favour of Iraq? The invasion of Iraq was not merely a mistake in its own right; it was also a mistake for what it meant in Afghanistan.

The power of Pakistan’s military and the deep entanglement of the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) can only be resolved, Riedel argues, if peace in Kashmir and strong relations with India remove the underlying rationale for a strong armed state pulling in unconventional allies.

By contrast, Bangladesh – another smaller country with an at times uneasy relationship with India – is praised in the book: “Though desperately poor, it had made tremendous strides since breaking away from Pakistan in 1971 to alleviate its poverty and reduce illiteracy. Now [in 2000] headed by Shaika Hasina, a female prime minister and thus a rare commodity in the Islamic world, it was also a poster child for the microcredit concept developed by Clinton’s long-time friend Mohammed Yunus in his Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. Furthermore, the country did not support terrorism, did not seek to acquire weapons of mass destructions, and was not a threat to regional peace.”

Many positive mentions too are made of the commitment of Saudi authorities to tackling violent extremism. Incidents such as the despatch of Saudi commandos to Afghanistan to try to arrest Osama Bin Laden before 9/11 help explain why Western governments have so often been very cautious and reluctant in taking up the Saudi government’s own failings.

The book provides detailed portraits of four key Al Qaeda personalities – Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden, Mullah Omar and Abu Musaib al-Zarqawi, including the main doctrinal divisions within Islam, so highlighting how their own view of Islam is far from universal or accepted.

The book ends on an attempted positive note, a chapter titled “How to defeat Al Qaeda”, though with Riedel’s prescriptions so heavily dependent on the Palestine and Kashmir questions it is far from clear that they are likely to be met.

You can buy Bruce Riedel’s The Search for Al Qaeda from Amazon here.

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This entry was posted in Books and Op-eds.


  • From your appraisal, it doesn’t seem this book offers anything new. It might provide interest to those wanting a perspective from a former CIA man, but there’s plenty of choice in that field. Is Riedel revealing any CIA secrets? I doubt it. Why suffer a perceived interpretation of al Qaeda’s motives by a former CIA analyst, when there’s offerings from people like Robert Fisk (who conducted three face-to-face interviews with Osama bin Laden) or as you say, Robert Pape, who leads a substantial academic research team, and has analysed al Qaeda from every angle?

    I heard about another book this morning on R4 Today which sounds more interesting, “Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism,” written by Scott Attran. He has apparently been interviewing and talking to terrorists around the world over the last few years. This one is more likely to make it onto my (ever-growing) reading list , though its doubtful I’ll ever get round to reading it cover to cover; a scan-through when it arrives at the library is more likely.

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