This article was first published in the Palestine Chronicle on December 28, 2009.
The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global. Fawaz A. Gerges. Cambridge University Press. N.Y. 2009.
First published in 2005, this text still stands the test of time for the theses that it presented then. In this new edition, Fawaz Gerges writes hopefully and expectantly that the new U.S. President, Barak Obama, can overcome the mistakes he sees that the U.S. has made in its “war on terror.” His hopes will obviously have dimmed somewhat if not greatly in consideration of Obama’s actions in the Middle East, but Gerges’ essential thematic message remains important.
Two main themes underlie the ideas in the book. The first tells of the relationship between bin Laden and Zawahiri and how their ideas interacted and reacted to turn the jihadis from the ‘near’ enemy – the local regional governments – to the ‘far’ enemy – the United States. The second theme is the poor manner in which the U.S. has understood essential differences between ‘near’ and ‘far’ jihadis, the history of their development, and the major divisions within the jihadi proponents. Following from the latter theme, a missing context of Gerges arguments concerning U.S. actions in the Middle East is readily discerned.
Bin Laden and Zawahiri
Osama bin Laden is the iconic anti-hero of the al-Qaeda movement, shooting to prominence in the western media with the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. Still at large presumably somewhere in the Afghanistan/Pakistan border region, bin Laden remains the iconic reviled evil of the Muslim world. Although active before 9/11 it was this singular act that brought him to global media attention.
Considered to be the mastermind behind the attacks and all other atrocities designated to be by al-Qaeda, Gerges’ arguments present the al-Qaeda top echelon to be structured as much by Ayman al- Zawahiri, a prominent Egyptian jihadi gone global.
Zawahiri’s initial jihadi interests were with the near enemy, in his case, Egypt. Gerges credits Zawhiri with turning bin Laden towards using tactics that he had used in his ‘near’ campaign towards the ‘far’ enemy, the U.S. These tactics consisted of the violent suicide attacks and attacks against civilians which Gerges argues were not originally within bin Laden’s repertoire. bin Laden had previously chosen mainly political and military targets for his war on the far enemy.
Conversely, Zawahiri had originally focussed his attention on the elite of Egypt and had not thought much about global jihad. Influenced by bin Laden, for lack of financial support elsewhere, as well as the lack of success of the near jihad in Egypt, Zawahiri turned to bin Laden for support. From his experience with his near jihad in Egypt, Zawahiri “brought vast operational, political, and conceptual skills to his alliance with bin Laden.”
In sum Zawahiri turned from the near to the far enemy, from Muslim apostates to the U.S. and its allies in the west. Bin Laden, turned from targeting the military and elite to utilizing Zawahiri’s organizational skills and tactics of suicide attacks and attacks against civilians. The combination led to 9/11.
Gerges discusses several pivotal moments within the jihadi movements. Afghanistan’s resistance to Soviet intervention was the first point. At the time, it was seen as a ‘near’ jihad, to rid Muslim land of an occupier, the “[irredentist] jihadis possess no political ambition to wage jihad against either their own government or Western nations.” The consensus at the time “among Muslim clerics and scholars” was that “jihad against the Russian invaders was legitimate (defensive) and could be considered a “collective” duty.” Gerges argues that “while united to fight the common enemy…, they disagreed on almost everything else, including politics and religion.”
It is frequently reiterated and supported that “jihadis lacked unity and possessed separate local identities and differing goals,” that they were “ripe with internal strife and rivalry….prone to infighting and power struggles.” It was within this intense internecine strife that bin Laden and Zawahiri forged their relationship and turned it toward the far enemy in a violent manner.
The next pivot point is the 9/11 attack, which was far from being as successful as bin Laden and Zawahiri had anticipated. They expected that by attacking the U.S. it “would bring estranged jihadis back into the fold as well as mobilize the ummah against pre-Western Muslim rulers and their superpower patron – the United States.” Instead, “the core of the jihadis’ critique is a direct assault on what the religious nationalists view as the shortsightedness and colossal miscalculations of bin Laden and Zawahiri.” Although guests of the Taliban, bin Laden was highly criticized for bringing the U.S. and all its military power into Afghanistan and, as argued in other works, the Taliban, had they been approached correctly by the U.S., could very well have handed bin Laden over to international authorities, or revealed to the same where he was working from.
The third pivot point is Iraq. Before the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, the jihadi movement according to Gerges had essentially torn itself apart, with very few actual al-Qaeda members remaining from the onslaught of U.S. power, a resurgence of local nationalist power, and scorching critiques of al-Qaeda by Arab and Muslim writers and scholars where “the dominant commentary …is an utter rejection of bin Ladenism and a consistent plea for rationality and cultural engagement.”. The contrived invasion of Iraq momentarily gave new life to al-Qaeda as a possible center in which to renew its ‘far’ jihad.
From this low point, the Iraqi invasion “has turned into a recruiting device against perceived American imperial policies; it has radicalized both mainstream and militant Arab and Muslim public opinion.” The conflict in Iraq, “a baptism of blood and fire, coupled with socialization with hard-core jihadis, will make them vulnerable to militancy.”
Purposeful Errors – U.S. Foreign Policy
Throughout these arguments the U.S. is seen as not understanding the many divisions and splits within the jihadi movements. These divisions are at the core of Gerges’ arguments and represent a good portion of the text. There was/is in the U.S. according to Gerges a “catastrophic analytic failure” to understand the jihadi movement and the strengths and powers of the various players within it. He argues correctly that “al-Queda [sic] represents more of a national security problem…than a strategic threat,” with the national security problem being downgraded to a “security nuisance” later in the work. The implication is that the U.S. military actions in the Middle East are a huge over-reaction to the reality of the strengths of al-Qaeda, the national jihadis, and the resurgent Taliban insurgency against a now occupying power. He suggests that assisting local governments and utilizing legal international support rather than using military occupation is sufficient to harness and stop the havoc created by a small group of violent actors.
And of course it is a huge over-reaction, but the context that Gerges misses, or chooses to ignore, is that part of this is for the media at home to present to the consuming public at home, a public which is generally ignorant about foreign cultures and beliefs. The context that needs to be presented is that of the U.S. imperial interests in controlling the resources of the area (mainly oil and natural gas, but other minerals as well), and in containing the actions of China and Russia within the same region.
Gerges argues that the U.S. “has assigned too much importance to the terrorists and has unwittingly invested bin Laden and Zawhiri with the legitimacy and stature that they desperately craved.” This propaganda victory for al-Qaeda is seen as “suspect by those unable to believe that the American government could be so naïve.” In truth, it is far from naïve: the “war on terror” is what is fed to the people at home by the corporate media, a story that inculcates into the public the idea that their very way of life is threatened by the hundred or so remaining al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and now on into Pakistan. Without that fear factor, without the evil other, the reality of the U.S. killing civilians and destroying cultural and physical landscapes to control resources and other geopolitical forces might not be so convincing an argument to continue with the violence and atrocities against international law that the U.S. commits daily in the Middle East.
As for Obama, one year into his presidency, one year after the 2009 writing date of Gerges revision, there is little hope for a change of tactic, as the U.S. surges anew into the region and is being highly disruptive of the whole Pakistani arena of affairs. Obama has inherited Bush’s war, made it his own, and continues the rhetoric about terrorists without discussing the essence of the reason for attacking and occupying the Middle East – for its own geopolitical advantage and to support the Israeli state.
Israel and Palestine
Israel and Palestine do not pay a major role in this text, nor hardly even a minor role. But they are mentioned infrequently, with Israel being identified as being the U.S.’s sidekick in the Middle East. When Palestine is mentioned it is considered as not prominent on the jihadi agenda, yet “the Palestinian tragedy continues to inspire young activists and fuel their rage. I [Gerges] have not met an Islamist or jihadi who does not mention Palestine as an example of Western injustices inflicted on Muslims.” While Palestinians may not be important to Zawahiri and bin Laden, “many of their foot soldiers and operatives have been moved and influenced by it.” In his final summarizing comments, Gerges sees U.S. policy as failing to understand the divisions mentioned above – and conversely which he fails to see as a purposeful ignorance – and the “legitimate grievances of many Muslims – foremost the simmering regional conflicts in Palestine, Iraq, and Kashmir.”
Regardless of Gerges lack of insight into the geopolitical motives for the U.S. to continue its “war on terror”, The Far Enemy provides good insights into the jihadi movements and their fractiousness and relative weakness on the global stage.