Alan Caruba / Nov 26, 2003

It is the question that countless intelligence specialists, academics, and heads of state are trying to answer, quo vadis, al Qaeda? Whither goest thou? It is not merely what it will do next, but whether progress is being made against this shadowy network and how long it will take before it can be penetrated and destroyed?

The problem those in the West have in understanding al Qaeda is that it does not function from what we would deem a recognizable political, economic or ideological basis. It is not the identifiable ideology of communism, nor the sheer quest for power of fascism. It is the nearly incomprehensible fanaticism of a religion-based belief that America, the Jews, and the West in general are a threat to Islam and its “holy jihad” to rule the world.

Some things we know. According to a recent report, Osama bin Laden is now operating out of Iran with the blessings and assistance of its oligarchy of ayatollahs. A look at the map reveals why. On one side of Iran is Afghanistan and on the other is Iraq. Those who argue we should withdraw our troops and disengage from the struggle to initiate democratic governments in both nations are arguing for surrender to al Qaeda, our sworn enemy.

The Islamic jihad began in earnest in Iran in the late 1970s when the Shah was overthrown and American diplomats were taken hostage. It escalated in the 1980s when the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan (with the assistance of the CIA) by a combination of local warriors supported by many young Saudis who swarmed into Afghanistan and, in effect, took over the nation in the form of the Taliban.

At the heart of al Qaeda has always been Saudi Arabian involvement. So why is al Qaeda attacking within Saudi Arabia? Again, one has to understand the roots of the jihad. It is Wahabism, the strict form of Islam with which the House of Saud struck a bargain when it began its conquest of the Arabian Peninsula in the last century. Bin Laden, a Saudi, is the living symbol of Wahabism.  

As Dr. Walid Phares, a professor of Middle East Studies, recently noted, the al Qaeda attacks within Saudi Arabia, previously directed against Westerners such as the 1996 bombing of the Dhahran US military barracks, and now killing Saudis and other Muslims living there, has been designed to force the Royal family to make a choice between “its traditional inclination to Wahabism and its realist ties to the United States.”
It would appear the House of Saud has decided to tilt toward the West. Reportedly, it has been cracking down on al Qaeda wherever it can find its members. Most telling was the statement by Crown Prince Abdallah, a virtual declaration of war against “clerics” who protect al Qaeda and legitimize its resort to violence. He called them “intruders” and “enemies of the true path.”  They are not intruders. They are Saudis in the same way that virtually all of those who destroyed the World Trade Center on 9-11 were Saudis.

Pushing the Saudis in this direction of disassociating itself from the very fanaticism it has supported for so long, Michael Young, the chairman of the US government Commission on Religious Freedom, said in late November that the US policy is that the Wahabi brand of Islam “is an ideology that is incompatible with the war on terrorism.” Addressing the question of whether “Saudi Arabia is a strategic threat”, the commission examined “the (Saudi) global propagation of intolerance.”

“The Saudi royal family has shown it has no inclination for real reform,” said Mai Yamani, a Saudi academic who has been threatened with arrest if she returns home. Now the royal family must either divorce itself from its decades of funding the worldwide spread of Wahabism through thousands of mosques and madrasses or it must face its own extinction. That is a powerful inducement to change course. Moreover, it is doubtful that Saudi citizens would long remain passive in the face of the kind of bombings that have occurred in Riyadh and are likely to occur in Islam’s most holy city, Mecca. One leading Saudi cleric that formerly issued fatwas against the West is now calling al Qaeda “criminals.”

Martin Indyk, a former US Ambassador to Israel, said, “We’ve struck a Faustian bargain, turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s domestic policies…and we’ve turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabian efforts to export Wahabism.” That policy, if the report of the Commission on Religious Freedom is any indication, is dead. The Saudis know it. Not only has Wahabism come back to kill Saudis, it now threatens the interests of the royal family.

Which brings us back to Osama bin Laden whose new headquarters can be found in Iran. The Iranians are Shiites. The Saudis are Sunnis. The struggle for which branch will dominate Islam has been going on since the earliest years of Islam. Iran is being squeezed now by US military power in the Middle East. It is surrounded by nations that have aligned themselves with America and the West. In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, to its north is Turkey and to its south is Pakistan. It borders Turkmenistan, a satellite of the Russian Federation whose future is tied the development of its oil reserves.

Thus, al Qaeda, though capable of having cells at work in any nation, is now isolated in terms of its leadership. Add to this, what must surely be a 24/7 search for Osama bin Laden to kill him and his associates, and one can begin to see the beginnings of the end of this movement. That said, the end will likely not come soon. One can project this struggle out at least fifty years without risking being wrong.

Its individual cells are essentially on their own. And the bombings, which are its primary weapon, have turned much of the world against it. It is now killing Muslims. Bin Laden reportedly has trimmed his beard and taken to wearing the black clerical garb of an Iranian mullah. He’s running out of friends and the Iranian Islamic Revolution is running out of time. Within Iran, the vast majority of its population wants to oust the ayatollahs from power.

One factor remains as the ultimate threat and that is the irrational devotion of the adherents of al Qaeda to wreak terror upon a world that is passing them by. Any group whose members are willing, eager, to kill themselves for its objectives remains a potent enemy. Their enemy within Islam are the many Muslims who do not support its jihad and who will ultimately prove its undoing.

American power and its resolve thus far has proven to be the key to thwarting Osama bin Laden’s ambitions, but now it will be aided by those nations al Qaeda threatens.

Quo vadis al Qaeda? Not tomorrow, not next week, next month, or next year, but as surely as the Sun will rise, its days are numbered.

Alan Caruba is the author of “Warning Signs” and his weekly commentaries are posted on, the Internet site of The National Anxiety Center.

© Alan Caruba 2003

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