A sandstorm envelops a young US Marine in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters
On around the fifth day of the demonstrations in Cairo, there was a rapid but revealing exchange on CNN. Presenter Wolf Blitzer introduced the channel’s national security analyst Peter Bergen, "the author of the new and best-selling book The Longest War and expert on the Middle East". After recapping recent events in Egypt, he asked his guest, "Where, if at all, does al-Qaida fit into this entire equation?" Bergen replied, slightly taken aback, "I would say not at all."
- The Longest War: America and Al-Qaeda Since 9/11
- by Peter L. Bergen
This is not the first time Bergen has had to field such startling questions about al-Qaida or Islamic militancy in general. Since first becoming interested in the topic in the mid-90s, and meeting Osama bin Laden in 1997, Bergen has, through his books, journalism and lecturing, established a reputation as one of America’s foremost al-Qaida experts. Though there are some with a more specialised knowledge of certain corners of the vast field that is "jihadi studies", few rival Bergen’s overall knowledge or ability to explain, patiently and intelligibly, complicated concepts to people whose knowledge of the subject is, at best, variable. He is also one of the very rare such figures to consistently spent time on the ground: in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, and most recently in Egypt.
The Longest War is ambitious both in scope and aims. It sets out to chart "the enduring conflict between America and al-Qaida". Its goal, the author says, "is to tell a history of the ‘war on terror’ in one volume." In particular it aims to tell the story from all sides. Events in the US have been well covered by a series of instant histories by Bob Woodward and through the wonderful American tradition of senior figures releasing detailed memoirs soon after leaving office. Though some of the material in The Longest War is familiar, Bergen, through interviews with lesser-known figures, particularly from the world of counter-terrorism, adds much to what is already known.
However, it is on the other side that the book is revelatory. The internal workings of bin Laden’s group are still largely obscure, at least to the general public, and Bergen does a fine job of negotiating the maze of personalities and ideologies to explain the various evolutions al-Qaida has undergone.
One valuable early point is that the 9/11 attacks were deeply controversial within al-Qaida itself, and the broader Islamic militant community. Many believed that to risk the overthrowing of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the consequent loss of a safe haven was a mistake. Noman Benotman, a Libyan former militant and Afghan veteran, now in London, told Bergen that "the tactics took over the strategy". Some, though far fewer, believed it was theologically unjustified.
These debates, often acrimonious, continued. By 2007, senior figures, among them founder members of al-Qaida and senior Gulf clerics with strong militant credentials, were renouncing violence, or at least bin Laden’s leadership. Another debate within militant ranks was over whether to favour an "open front" strategy, where non-conventional but overt campaigns would aim to "liberate" territory, or a broader, decentralised strategy, which would aim to spark a "global uprising" and a host of miniature al-Qaidas would spring up. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the latter was the brainchild of Syrian-born Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, better known as Abu Musab al’Suri, who was one of those in Afghanistan pre-9/11 who was deeply suspicious of bin Laden and his pretensions to primacy within the world of Islamic extremism.
This argument reflects a broader one among analysts over the centrality of al-Qaida in contemporary militant Islam. Bergen is very clear: al-Qaida and bin Laden remain critical. They are at the centre of many plots, providing leadership, inspiration and focus. In the unlikely event of the capture or killing of bin Laden – and Bergen surgically slices away the bombast to reveal the deep inadequacies of the hunt for the fugitive terrorist – a huge hole would be left.
Here, Bergen perhaps goes too far. Certainly al-Qaida continues to play a major role, particularly in adding the practical knowledge and strategic focus that turns a "bunch of guys" into a terrorist cell. But if the radicalisation process is traced further back, other elements become much more important, not least personal acquaintances and the ideological environment in any given community.
A survey of militant Islam around the world shows how limited bin Laden’s influence is on the broader movement, despite the media attention he receives. Though new groups in Somalia and the Yemen are linked, tenuously, to the "AQ hardcore", many others – in Iraq, Indonesia, Algeria, Morocco, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan – are not. If these groups have sometimes come close to al-Qaida’s vision in ideological terms, they would not necessarily evaporate if bin Laden was removed from the scene. Indeed, the current interest of Pakistani groups such as Lashkar e-Taiba or Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami in global agendas could be read as a sign of the end of al-Qaida’s monopoly on international campaigns.
This debate has huge implications for the current crisis in Egypt, in which al-Qaida, as Bergen told Blitzer, has played no role whatsoever. Rather than asking about al-Qaida, Blitzer should have been asking about Islamism more generally. One of the most striking developments over recent years in the Middle East has been the growing conservatism, political, social and religious, of much of the population. Often this has been in opposition to the westernised values and lifestyles of an elite unwilling to share power and wealth with the expanding urban middle class. In Egypt, democracy is seen as a tool to oust that elite.
Quite what will follow is uncertain. The critical question is the extent to which the population share the social values of the educated, media and tech-savvy activists who have so far been driving events. Though the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organisation founded in Egypt in 1928, would probably win only a third of votes in a free and fair election, it is likely that a "mild or moderate" Islamist worldview is shared by a greater proportion of people.
One possibility is an evolution along the lines of Turkey, where an ongoing tension between new conservative, religious moderates and an old secular elite has neither derailed economic growth nor destabilised the country. But other less positive outcomes are entirely feasible. The biggest problem for reformers in Iran, too, is bringing on board the country’s reactionary rural and working-class constituency, who are still suspicious of anything that smacks of westernisation.
A second element is worth remembering. Bergen recounts the history and roots of "the longest war" (that there is still no commonly agreed name for the conflict reveals much about the lack of clarity as to its real nature and even the identity of its participants). It is a conflict that is often described as "generational", meaning that it will last for somewhere between 20 and 25 years. However, there is another sense in which generations play a role. Looking at some of the regions hit by violence associated with militant Islam in recent years, such as Iraq or Saudi Arabia, it is clear that the revulsion most people feel when they see what radical campaigns at home actually mean was the crucial factor in the failure of extremists to convince communities to heed their call-to-arms. The same was true of Algeria and Egypt in the 90s. Yet those out on the streets in Cairo and Alexandria are extremely young. In Egypt, 29% of the population is under 30. Most barely remember the hideous brutality that accompanied the militant campaigns of 15 or 20 years ago. They may, if their aspirations are not met in this new period of change, be tempted to turn once more to the bomb and the bullet.
But to understand "the equation", as Blitzer put it, you need to understand al-Qaida, and Bergen, with this detailed, serious, scrupulously fair, perceptive and sometimes startling work has made a significant contribution to us doing exactly that.
Jason Burke’s new book, The 9/11 Wars, will be published by Penguin later this year.