The meme going around the past few weeks is that al-Qaeda is on the ropes. One of the first places I saw it in the mainstream press was an LA Times story from April, the main themes of which have been echoed recently in the Bergen/Cruickshank and Wright pieces. The main evidence offered is that several hard-line religious scholars that used to support AQ have now renounced the organization. Awda (Saudi cleric), Hamid al-Ali (Kuwaiti cleric), Sayyid Imam (former head of Egyptian al-Jihad), and the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia are the most commonly cited personalities.
Michael Scheuer dissents (of course!), arguing that these scholars have either been co-opted, have an ax to grind, or are has-beens, so their criticism won’t matter to the Jihadis. In fact, Scheuer argues that the Jihadis are on the march:
these arguments are occurring in the context of the jihadis expanding in North Africa, the Levant, and Europe; effectively resisting U.S.-led military coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan; and winning elections every time one is held in the Arab world — Gaza, Egypt, Bahrain, and most recently in Kuwait.
There is something to the recent meme that Scheuer is missing: these attacks from former prominent supporters or fellow travelers are severely damaging the publics’ opinion of AQ, especially among educated Salafis. The books or letters written by Awda or Sayyid Imam are carefully formulated criticisms of AQ from within the classical Islamic tradition, not silly there-is-no-violence-in-jihad arguments. Moreover, these men have major names in the Jihadi-Salafi community and their earlier works are still much cited, so they have to be dealt with. Although Zawahiri dismisses their attacks in precisely the same way Scheuer does, he wrote a 188-page book in response to one of them, Sayyid Imam. And he released it only two months after Imam’s book came out. You do not write a book of that length and release it that fast if you are not worried. Since Scheuer is all about listening to the enemy, he should not be so quick to dismiss something Zawahiri takes so seriously.
That said, Scheuer is right that there is a little too much optimism about AQ’s impending doom. AQ may be collapsing in Iraq and losing the larger war for public sympathy, but it is still attracting recruits and expanding its operations on the margins of the Middle East–Algeria and Pakistan/Afghanistan.
It is also casting its eye on Yemen, Lebanon, and Gaza (good luck with the last two!).
In short, there are some positive signs that AQ is losing the war of perceptions (i.e. it looks like a loser right now), but it is still quite strong.
One final note: Scheuer’s suggestion that the recent electoral successes of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Salafis in Kuwait constitute jihadi expansion is wrongheaded. What does the U.S. stand to gain by lumping democratically-elected MB and Salafi candidates in with AQ? The U.S. should be looking for ways to increase the political participation of these groups while identifying local variations between them that can be used to the advantage of the U.S. and to the detriment of AQ.