Al Qaeda seeks to hijack existing conflicts and make them part of the global jihad against the West.
However, in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan and now Iraq, the Islamist internationalist groups have been unsuccessful in diverting local and national conflicts, playing only the role of auxiliaries. The key actors of the local conflicts are the local actors...These groups are not under the leadership of Al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda has managed only to implant foreign volunteers into these struggles, volunteers who usually do not understand local politics and find support among the local population only as long as they fight a common enemy, such as American troops in Iraq.
But their respective agenda is totally different: Local actors, Islamist or not, want a political solution on their own terms. They do not want chaos or global jihad. As soon as there is a discrepancy between "the policy of the worst" waged by Al Qaeda and a possible local political settlement, the local actors choose the local settlement. [...]
In Iraq, many among the Sunnis, including the Salafists, resent not only Al Qaeda's tactics of indiscriminate suicide bombings, but also the strategy of confronting the Shiites.
The fact is Al Qaeda plays a role in the deterioration of the conflicts but is unable to succeed in coordinating them. Local, national, tribal or sectarian religious channels are stronger. [...]
In short, there may be good reasons for the United States to remain in Iraq, but they have nothing to do with Al Qaeda; they have more to do with a damage-control operation. If the U.S. troops leave, there might be a civil war, there might be a growing Iranian influence, Iraq might be turned into a battlefield by proxies between Saudi Arabia and Iran. There could be a Sunni-controlled area, a Shiite state and an independent Kurdistan, but no Qaedistan.
The most charitable reading of McCain's dubious admonition is that he is trying to gin up fear through evoking a specter that he knows to be a chimera. In short, he is lying to the American people in order to maintain support for the Iraq occupation that he believes is justifiable for other, non-stated reasons. The other plausible reading is that McCain is simply gallingly ignorant as to the nature of al-Qaeda and the threat it poses in Iraq and beyond.
Under either interpretation, however, McCain's words are not only misleading, they are actually counterproductive to the cause of defeating al-Qaeda. Let's revisit his statement:
...my friends if we left [al-Qaeda] wouldn't be establishing a base, they wouldn't be establishing a base, they'd be taking a country. And I'm not going to allow that to happen my friends. I will not surrender. I will not surrender to Al Qaeda.
Now consider the advice of Marc Sageman - one of the most well respected voices on issues related to al-Qaeda (and one of my personal favorites). Sageman points out, in his latest book, that al-Qaeda's first and second waves have mostly been neutralized. The remaining threat comes from an Internet-fueled, movement of would-be terrorists who are more amateurish, though less easy to identify (a "leaderless jihad"), and motivated primarily by an urge for something bigger, some heroic path. In this article in Foreign Policy (subscription required):
The U.S. strategy to counter this terrorist threat continues to be frozen by the horrors of 9/11. It relies more on wishful thinking than on a deep understanding of the enemy. The pursuit of "high-value targets" who were directly involved in the 9/11 operation more than six years ago was an appropriate first step to bring the perpetrators to justice. And the United States has been largely successful in degrading the capability of al Qaeda Central.
But this strategy is not only useless against the leaderless jihad; it is precisely what will help the movement flourish. Radical Islamist terrorism will never disappear because the West defeats it. Instead, it will most likely disappear for internal reasons—if the United States has the sense to allow it to continue on its course and fade away. The main threat to radical Islamist terrorism is the fact that its appeal is self-limiting. The key is to accelerate this process of internal decay. This need not be a long war, unless American policy makes it so.
Terrorist acts must be stripped of glory and reduced to common criminality. Most aspiring terrorists want nothing more than to be elevated to the status of an FBI Most Wanted poster. "[I am] one of the most wanted terrorists on the Internet," Younis Tsouli boasted online a few months before his arrest in 2005. "I have the Feds and the CIA, both would love to catch me. I have MI6 on my back." His ego fed off the respect such bragging brought him in the eyes of other chatroom participants. Any policy or recognition that puts such people on a pedestal only makes them heroes in each other's eyes—and encourages others to follow their example. These young men aspire to nothing more glorious than to fight uniformed soldiers of the sole remaining superpower. That is why the struggle against these terrorists must be demilitarized and turned over to collaborative law enforcement. The military role should be limited to denying terrorists a sanctuary.
It is equally crucial not to place terrorists who are arrested or killed in the limelight. The temptation to hold press conferences to publicize another "major victory" in the war on terror must be resisted, for it only transforms terrorist criminals into jihadist heroes. The United States underestimates the value of prosecutions, which often can be enormously demoralizing to radical groups. There is no glory in being taken to prison in handcuffs. No jihadi Web site publishes such pictures. Arrested terrorists fade into oblivion; martyrs live on in popular memory. [...]
It is necessary to reframe the entire debate, from imagined glory to very real horror. Young people must learn that terrorism is about death and destruction, not fame. The voices of the victims must be heard over the bragging and posturing that go on in the online jihadist forums. Only then will the leaderless jihad expire, poisoned by its own toxic message.
With that in mind, consider, again, the words of McCain and others that elevate al-Qaeda's importance and stature by claiming - erroneously - that al-Qaeda has the power to take over Iraq, that leaving Iraq would be an al-Qaeda victory or that we are locked into an epic and existential battle with al-Qaeda (as if they could anihilate us). Hype such as this only makes al-Qaeda appear larger than life, and emulation a more attractive endeavor for those searching for a heroic journey (however misguided they are in their estimation of the heroic).We would be better served to dismiss, downplay and delegitimize. Unfortunately, playing on, and stoking, the fear in the minds of voters seems to be the fall-back position for GOP politicians - McCain included. He's adding the golden lights to the billboard.