The recent horrific attacks on the international hotels in Amman, Jordan, are a stark reminder of al Qaeda’s brutality, and of its expanded operations — even further into its homelands.
Opinion polls until now have suggested the network and its leader Osama bin Laden have been extensively popular in much of the Muslim and Arab world, especially the Sunni Muslim and Sunni Arab world.
In 2004, researchers from Jordan University found al Qaeda seen as “a legitimate resistance movement” by about two-thirds of the samples in Jordan and Palestine, and by more than 2 in 5 respondents in Egypt.
A Pew poll released in July 2005 noted “confidence in bin Laden” had decreased in the last two years, but still hovered at disturbingly high percentages in many states: in Morocco, it was 26 percent of the public, in Indonesia, 35 percent, in Pakistan, 51 percent, and in Jordan, 60 percent.
These data remind us of the scale and depth of sympathy for al Qaeda in its constituency, especially in Jordan.
Reflections on centuries of counterinsurgency from all over the world show sensible antiterrorism policy targets the relations between insurgents and their constituents. The constituents are the wider community that often celebrates and minimally condones the terrorist attack, though they themselves may not use violence. Critically, they are the people who need to be won over so they oppose terrorism in their communities.
If developed appropriately, antiterrorism policy would weaken and isolate al Qaeda and its offshoots and imitators, because this core and broader constituency would stop regarding al Qaeda operatives as legitimate soldiers of the Muslim nation. Afterward, they would become much more vulnerable to informants and standard policing surveillance.
Sensible U.S. antiterrorism policy must remember two things: (1) It must avoid building new grievances among al Qaeda’s constituency without surrendering its fundamental values. For instance, human rights and recognition of existing democratic states (such as Israel and Iraq) should be nonnegotiable.
(2) Successful policy will rigorously capitalize on the “mistakes” of the jihadi.
The deepest mistakes of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia occur when its operatives kill their own constituents — Sunni Muslims and Sunni Arab Muslims in particular — and when they make lame excuses for these acts.
That should be the focus of international public relations. The “argument” that “Allah decides who is innocent” must be relentlessly exposed as cruel, inhumane, anti-Muslim and against Sunni traditions of argument about what constitutes a just war justly waged.
The Sunni Arab Muslims of Iraq and of Jordan must be constantly reminded that al Qaeda indiscriminately regards them — not just outsiders — as fair targets, as collateral damage, whose fate shall be decided by Allah rather than the merciless Abu Musab Zarqawi. Public-relations campaigns, education and democracy promotion must target this sore point.
It is a waste of time, energy and money for Karen Hughes to focus on trying to portray Americans as fair toward Muslims, even if that is substantially the case. The same is true of European Union member-states, who should not be forced by events in London and Paris into a largely off-focus debate on an integrationist versus a multicultural immigration policy.
Surgical counterterrorism (which need not be militarist) should instead focus on opportunities to generate revulsion and change minds when al Qaeda attacks “its” people. The jihadi, like other utopian revolutionists throughout history, eat their own. This central fact should be constantly highlighted by Western democracies and the new Iraq democracy.
Brendan O’Leary is the Lauder Professor of Political Science and director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Solomon Asch Center. Karin von Hippel is a senior fellow and co-director of the post-conflict reconstruction project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.