A new survey shows that support for al Qaeda’s violent methods is waning in some Muslim countries.
Support for al Qaeda and its violent tactics continues to decline among eight countries with large Muslim populations, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2008 Global Attitudes survey.
In Pakistan, for example, where a suicide bombing killed 54 in September at the Islamabad Marriott Hotel, only 5 percent of Muslims said they viewed suicide bombings as justified, compared to 33 percent in 2002. In Jordan, where multiple suicide bombings in 2005 killed 60 at three Western hotels and sparked protests, support for Osama bin Laden has dropped from 56 percent in 2003 to 19 percent in 2008.
“Nigeria is the only country where positive views of bin Laden have become more common since 2003,” according to the survey.
The changing attitudes are the direct result of al Qaeda’s attacks within Muslim countries. “Al Qaeda is killing a lot of Muslim civilians,” said Peter Bergen at a panel discussion on Capitol Hill cosponsored by the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute, and the Counterterrorism Foundation, a terrorism think tank. “It is human nature not to care about things unless they are on your doorstep,” he added.
Bergen, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, cowrote an article published in The New Republic in June. It was one of the first mainstream reports of a “jihadist revolt against bin Laden.” The article cited examples from Noman Benotman, former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group who resigned after 9-11. It followed a report in The New Yorker that featured the renunciation of al Qaeda by a former jihadist known as Dr. Fadl, who is credited with laying the intellectual foundation for al Qaeda’s many murderous acts.
Bergen and his coauthor, Paul Cruickshank, a fellow at the Center on Law and Security at New York University’s School of Law, concede that jihadist criticism of al Qaeda preceded 9-11, but it was tempered by the invasion of Iraq. “Anger kicked up by the Iraq war in the Muslim world made it a difficult climate [in which] to criticize al Qaeda,” Cruickshank said.
That changed due to al Qaeda’s indiscriminate killing of civilians and its Iraqi surrogate’s bid to consolidate power by killing or intimidating uncooperative Sunni leaders. As a result, some Sunnis began working with the United States military in what has been called “the Sunni Awakening.”
Some counterterrorism experts have experienced an awakening of their own, recognizing the need to move from a mostly military strategy to one that puts more emphasis on cultural, philosophical, and psychological tools to defeat al Qaeda.
James Glassman, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, sworn in in June, redefined the mission of his office, saying it uses “the tools of ideological engagement—words, deeds, and images—to create an environment hostile to violent extremism.” He said the effort required “credible Muslim voices” to confront the ideology that justifies violence.
A recent study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace examined Saudi Arabia’s “soft” counterterrorism strategy, which relies on similar tactics. The Saudi government considers the views of violent extremists “corrupted understandings” of Islam and seeks to counter these teachings through counseling of prisoners by respected clerics and public information campaigns aimed at prevention.
“Throughout the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, similar programs are starting to emerge,” the study said.
In Great Britain, an initiative has been launched to provide guidelines to primary and secondary schools to help teachers discuss extremism with students. In addition, “British authorities have taken advantage of the emerging jihadist critique of al Qaeda by pragmatically engaging with jihadists and Salafists critical of al Qaeda, while cracking down on the real problem groups,” Cruickshank told the panel.
The approach aims to isolate violent extremists and seems to be paying dividends, Cruickshank said. He cited the success of a partnership between police and a group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood to turn around the Finsbury Park Mosque, which was once controlled by a pro-al-Qaeda cleric.
While these and other “soft” tactics have been successful at times, one expert on the panel, who served in the Islamist political party Hizb ut-Tahrir for 13 years before changing his views in prison, advises caution. “It is very important to encourage tactically those who used to be terrorists to divide active terrorists,” said Maajid Nawaz, who is now a codirector of the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based counter extremism think tank. But Nawaz worries that empowering former jihadists—who have denounced violence against “civilians” but have not recanted Islamism, which maintains that Islam is not only a religion but also a political system—will reinforce the same ideology that produced terrorism. “There is a danger, at the very least, that they could obtain power and establish a totalitarian state that does not believe in national borders and will conquer neighbors,” he said.
It’s also useful to keep progress in perspective. While support for bin Laden has continued to decline, the Pew study also notes that “Disturbingly high numbers of Muslims in Indonesia (37 percent) and Pakistan (34 percent) have confidence in the terrorist leader,” and a quarter to a third of those polled in Jordan, Nigeria, and Lebanon still see suicide bombings as justified.