The discourse about al-Qaida by the U.S. administration and its allies can best be described as about everything and nothing. It is about everything because virtually all policy matters now seem to hinge on the war against al-Qaida. It is also about nothing because there is little substance in the administration's discourse as to what al-Qaida is and the concrete means to defeat it.
A careful examination of al-Qaida reveals both why it has been successful in the short term and why it is doomed to fail in the long term. Its eventual failure will have little to do with our fighting a "war on terror," however. Rather, the key to al-Qaida's fate lies within the internal dynamics of the organization.
Behind the rhetoric exhorting the establishment of an Islamic caliphate that Ayman al-Zawahiri repeats every couple of months, al-Qaida is essentially an anarchist movement, largely dependent on Muslims worldwide turning into jihadis. Before the invasion of Afghanistan, al-Qaida had an established network there, highly organized and with logistical capacities that enabled the movement to mount operations against targets worldwide and also to be choosy in its recruits.
The invasion of Afghanistan, however, forced the movement to disintegrate. As one of its strategists declared, the leadership of al-Qaida deemed it necessary to dismantle its base in Afghanistan with a view to regrouping in the future. Since then, the movement has served as an inspiration rather than an organized network for jihadis worldwide, with its leaders capitalizing on Muslims' historical and contemporary grievances toward the West - some real, others imagined.
In the process of maximizing its pool of jihadis, al-Qaida, while it gained the affiliation of many who happen to share similar political grievances, was also forced to welcome into its fold jihadis who are not all in agreement with each other on points of doctrine and law. One major example was the marriage of convenience in 2004 with the group formerly headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose anti-Shiite views Osama bin Laden had deemed fanatical in the late 1990s, when they first met.
Thus, if we take out the political dimensions that unite the jihadis and examine al-Qaida from a doctrinal point of view, we find a global movement that is much larger than the sum of its parts. That is because it consists of many groups that espouse differing doctrinal principles.
Key to the worldview of these groups is the doctrine of tahkim, the belief that sovereignty over the affairs of the world belongs to God alone. From this belief flows the promise of a just society based solely on God's law - the only paradigm, they believe, that would ensure full equality among believers in this life and an eternal place in paradise in the hereafter.
Associated with tahkim is the other key term, takfir, a pronouncement that fellow Muslims who do not share one's views are unbelievers. Takfir is the process through which the purity of God's law is properly applied, ensuring that those who would contaminate his law by their ephemeral whims and desires are cast out of the fold.
The internal dynamics of al-Qaida, then, are not characterized by consensus building; rather, they are predicated on a rejection of other Muslims who do not share al-Qaida's narrow views. The groups that make up al-Qaida are thus doomed to split - or to disappear. In that respect, they share the same doctrinal dynamics and anarchist tendencies of the seventh-century Kharijites, the first counter-establishment movement in Islam.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. military leader in Iraq, would do well to learn from the seventh-century military commander, al-Muhallab. When his governor, al-Hallaj, commanded him to fight the Kharijites, al-Muhallab responded:
"I see no point in fighting them, since they themselves are fighting each other. If they carry on like this, that is after all what we desire, for therein lies their destruction. Even if they were to unite, they will do so only after they had weakened each other out. Then I would take them on when they are weaker than they had been, and their bravery had dampened, if Almighty God so disposes."
Strategists ought to realize that al-Qaida cannot be defeated through conventional wars. Instead, it must be given the space to self-destruct.
Nelly Lahoud teaches at Goucher College and is writing a book on radical groups in the Islamic tradition. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.