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The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda

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Fawaz A Gerges
Oxford University Press (September 2011)

In this concise and fascinating book, Fawaz A Gerges argues that Al-Qaeda has degenerated into a fractured, marginal body kept alive largely by the self-serving anti-terrorist bureaucracy it helped to spawn.

In The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda, Gerges, a leading authority on Islamic extremism, argues that the West has become mired in a 'terrorism narrative,' stemming from the mistaken belief that it is in danger of a devastating attack by a crippled Al-Qaeda. To explain why Al-Qaeda is no longer a threat, he provides a briskly written history of the organization, showing its emergence from the disintegrating local jihadist movements of the mid-1990s--not the Afghan resistance of the 1980s, as many believe--in 'a desperate effort to rescue a sinking ship by altering its course'. During this period, Gerges interviewed many jihadis, gaining a first-hand view of the movement that Bin Laden tried to reshape by internationalising it. He reveals that global jihad has attracted but a small minority within the Arab world and possesses no viable social and popular base. Furthermore, he shows that the attacks of September 11, 2001, were a major miscalculation--no 'river' of fighters flooded from Arab countries to defend Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, as Bin Laden expected. Gerges concludes that the movement has splintered into feuding factions, neutralising itself more effectively than a Predator drone.

Forceful, incisive, and written with extensive inside knowledge, this book will alter the debate on global terrorism.

  • Fawaz A Gerges is professor of middle Eastern politics and international relations at LSE.

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'On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, pundits, politicians and the press alike recalled an idea that has become familiar over the last ten years: 9/11 forever changed the world we live in. What has repeatedly passed with less scrutiny than it warrants, however, is the fundamental question of why al-Qaeda still matters so much. To put it so bluntly might seem either naïve or an offence to the memories of the thousands who feel victims of the fruit of Bin Laden’s creation. Yet it is precisely 9/11’s bloody legacy that renders this question essential.

'Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations at LSE, tells us with unrivalled insight how we reached this stage in his new book The Rise and Fall of al-Qaeda. Following on from his earlier work, including hundreds of interviews with current and former jihadists across the Middle East, Gerges aims to contextualise the nature of the threat.

'Intimately related with the attempt to draw a line between the perception of al-Qaeda’s threat and its real capabilities, another of the essential aims of the book is to debunk some of the myths about al-Qaeda that have taken hold of the American imagination. According to the author, without laying these myths to rest, there will be no closure to the US War on Terror, a war that has been too costly in blood and money, not to mention the twisting up to breaking point of the values of tolerance and democracy that America claims to live up to.

'Al-Qaeda is still dangerous. Yet, according to Gerges, the organisation and other local groups represent a security irritant, not a strategic threat to the West. The inability of US policymakers to acknowledge this fact has, in Gerges’s view, brought about, or at least precipitated, a power shift in the international system away from unipolarity to a multipolar system. Launched ten years ago, “The War on Terror” - as coined by its creators - has been boomeranging ever since.

'Osama bin Laden is gone, there is apparently no-one who can fill that void, the organisation enjoys no real support from the Muslim public, and its remaining members are essentially in hiding or on the run in Yemen and Pakistan. We are thus presented with a case that, more than al-Qaeda’s resilience, it is the blindness of those who are obsessed with it that keeps the organisation strategically relevant.

'Engaging and convincing in its argument, The Rise and Fall of al-Qaeda leaves one wondering whether the idea of jihad against the “far enemy” will perish alongside al-Qaeda Central (if or when that happens), or if it can outlive bin Laden’s creation.'
Reviewed for LSE Connect by Manuel Almeida, PhD candidate in the Department of International Relations at LSE.

The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda