CIA.gov Book Review
The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future by Bruce Riedel (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2008), 180 pp., endnotes, bibliography, index.
The search that former CIA Middle East specialist and NSC staffer Bruce Riedel describes is for the operational essence of al Qaeda and the means for dealing with it. From the outset Riedel makes it clear that the war on terror is really a war on al Qaeda. He explains that in order to defeat this enemy we must understand its reasons for being, what it hopes to achieve, and its strategy. For background, he reviews why al Qaeda undertook the 9/11 attacks and stresses the importance of understanding that Bin Laden’s objective was to provoke the United States into a war in Afghanistan, where it could be bled to death—the same strategy that defeated the Soviets. To achieve this goal, Riedel stresses al Qaeda’s need for a safe haven in Pakistan.
Having achieved the above goals, Reidel explains, al Qaeda intends to create “franchises” throughout the Muslim world that can continue to attack America’s allies. In addition, he argues, al Qaeda works to acquire a nuclear weapon and to accomplish its ultimate objectives “to drive the United States from the Muslim world, destroy Israel, and create a jihadist Caliphate” similar to the Ottoman Empire. (11) An Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty is not an option, Riedel emphasizes, because for Islamists peace can only come when Israel is physically eliminated.
For Westerners, this reality may be hard to grasp. To help others understand al Qaeda’s objectives, Riedel offers chapters on the thinking of four principal al Qaeda leaders: Zawahiri, Bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and Zarqawi. These chapters offer essential background about their Muslim development and attitudes. He also discusses the relationship of these leaders with other Muslim terrorist groups. Commenting on the historical enmity with the Iranian Shia, Reidel notes the irony of their shared goal with regard to Israel and its implications.
In the final chapter, “How to Defeat Al Qaeda,” Riedel presents recommendations for action by US decision makers and intelligence organizations. First, the “hunt for al Qaeda lacks a sheriff,” he notes, the DNI “does not know who is in charge—clearly he is not.” (148) Given a leader, he recommends shutting down the al Qaeda propaganda apparatus, the sanctuaries in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and South Asia, and the franchises. Whatever approaches are adopted, he underlines, they must avoid “alienating succeeding generations of Iraqis and other Muslims.” (149–53) He ends with suggestions for accomplishing this.
Despite the complex subject matter, The Search for Al Qaeda reads very well. As an added attraction, Riedel includes personal experiences that illuminate what a White House adviser goes through when dealing with contemporary Middle East issues. They add valuable insights. This book is a fine introduction for those seeking to understand al Qaeda and the need for its elimination.