There have been a number of very interesting reports recently which, taken together, indicate that perhaps moderate, 'mainstream' Islam is finally gaining the upper hand in its struggle with militants.
First, in October last year, Strategy Page reported that Moroccan authorities have been gaining the upper hand in their efforts to combat Muslim extremists in that nation. The author notes:
Suicide bombing has become less popular in the Moslem world, for a variety of reasons. First, there is the fact that most of the victims tend to be Moslems, usually innocent civilians (including many women and children.) Then there is the futility of it all. The many attacks do not appear to have accomplished anything. Lastly, there are the many families that do not want to see a son going off to get himself killed like this.
All this has led to more tips for police, reporting real, or suspected, activity by recruiters. As a result, more and more of these networks are being uncovered and destroyed. There is a shortage of suicide bombers, and a growing use of incompetent bombers. This, in turn, has led to more bombers getting caught, or failing to detonate their explosives near the target.
There's more at the link.
Next, Frank Chadwick pointed out in January that Al Qaeda's days appear to be numbered.
It’s not a security thing or an intelligence thing or a counterinsurgency thing; it’s a generational thing.
Violent revolutionary movements tend to run in forty-year cycles of rise, peak, and decline. The reason is simple. The established order has failed to address a series of concerns critical to a disenfranchised segment of the population. A bunch of “Young Turks” come along, point to the inability of the old farts to deliver, and offer their violent alternative as a means of shaking things up and getting genuine change. Are you with me so far? Swell.
Then, after about twenty years of shaking things up, all the Young Turks aren’t looking so young any more. A new generation of Young Turks has come along, but the founders of the movement tell them to shut up, not make waves, and follow orders. But if there hasn’t been a lot of real progress toward the goals of the movement, that younger generation starts wondering why they’re doing all the bleeding, and for what? Enthusiasm starts to wane, recruiting is down, and the Old Guard (not really Young Turks any more) rely on increasingly violent means to keep their own rank and file in line and keep hold of the headlines. But in a couple more years they are just a bunch of ineffective old farts unable to deliver on their promises, and a new generation grows up realizing that rather than being the solution, those old guys are the problem.
. . .
It’s not just theory; it’s history. Social Democrats. Anarchists. Communists. Revolutionary movements have recently been one-generational waves. In the mid-east before al-Qa’ida, it was the Arab Nationalist movement. They came to power in most of the Arab countries in the wake of World War II with young leaders, big ideas, and the promise of genuine change. Twenty years later they had peaked and twenty years after that they were the people al-Qa’ida set out to topple.
So where are we now? About a year ago al-Qa’ida celebrated its twentieth birthday. Are there any signs of aging? You bet. Suicide bombing has been a hallmark of al-Qa’ida and recruiting bombers has gotten harder and harder. There are a lot of reasons – too many innocent Moslem casualties for starters and no real progress on any of the movement’s key issues are big ones.
The result has been a dwindling supply of male volunteers which has forced them to turn to female recruiting. Their recruiting tactics are shocking, even for them. A recently captured recruiter confessed to arranging the rape of young women and then recruiting the victims with the argument that suicide was the only escape from the shame. Nice, huh?
Those aren’t the tactics of a movement confident in its future. Maybe they aren’t quite death throes, yet, either, but we’re on the down side of the curve.
Again, there's more at the link.
Finally, an article in Newsweek paints a broad picture of a fundamentalist Muslim movement that has lost its way. Here's an excerpt.
There are more than 1.5 billion Muslims living in more than 150 countries across the world. If jihadist ideology became attractive to a significant part of this population, the West faced a clash of civilizations without end, one marked by blood and tears.
. . .
... in fact, the entire terrain of the war on terror has evolved dramatically. Put simply, the moderates are fighting back and the tide is turning. We no longer fear the possibility of a major country succumbing to jihadist ideology. In most Muslim nations, mainstream rulers have stabilized their regimes and their societies, and extremists have been isolated. This has not led to the flowering of Jeffersonian democracy or liberalism. But modern, somewhat secular forces are clearly in control and widely supported across the Muslim world. Polls, elections, and in-depth studies all confirm this trend.
The focus of our concern now is not a broad political movement but a handful of fanatics scattered across the globe.
. . .
The most influential statement on Islam to come out of the post-9/11 era was not a presidential speech or an intellectual's essay. It was, believe it or not, a United Nations report. In 2002 the U.N. Development Program published a detailed study of the Arab world. The paper made plain that in an era of globalization, openness, diversity, and tolerance, the Arabs were the world's great laggards. Using hard data, the report painted a picture of political, social, and intellectual stagnation in countries from the Maghreb to the Gulf. And it was written by a team of Arab scholars. This was not paternalism or imperialism. It was truth.
The report, and many essays and speeches by political figures and intellectuals in the West, launched a process of reflection in the Arab world. The debate did not take the form that many in the West wanted—no one said, "You're right, we are backward." But still, leaders in Arab countries were forced to advocate modernity and moderation openly rather than hoping that they could quietly reap its fruits by day while palling around with the mullahs at night. The Bush administration launched a series of programs across the Muslim world to strengthen moderates, shore up civil society, and build forces of tolerance and pluralism. All this has had an effect. From Dubai to Amman to Cairo, in some form or another, authorities have begun opening up economic and political systems that had been tightly closed. The changes have sometimes been small, but the arrows are finally moving in the right direction.
Ultimately, the catalyst for change was something more lethal than a report. After 9/11, Al Qaeda was full of bluster: recall the videotapes of bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, boasting of their plans. Yet they confronted a far less permissive environment. Moving money, people, and materials had all become much more difficult. So they, and local groups inspired by them, began attacking where they could—striking local targets rather than global ones, including a nightclub and hotel in Indonesia, a wedding party in Jordan, cafés in Casablanca and Istanbul, and resorts in Egypt. They threatened the regimes that, either by accident or design, had allowed them to live and breathe.
Over the course of 2003 and 2004, Saudi Arabia was rocked by a series of such terrorist attacks, some directed against foreigners, but others at the heart of the Saudi regime—the Ministry of the Interior and compounds within the oil industry. The monarchy recognized that it had spawned dark forces that were now endangering its very existence. In 2005 a man of wisdom and moderation, King Abdullah, formally ascended to the throne and inaugurated a large-scale political and intellectual effort aimed at discrediting the ideology of jihadism. Mullahs were ordered to denounce suicide bombings, and violence more generally. Education was pried out of the hands of the clerics. Terrorists and terror suspects were "rehabilitated" through extensive programs of education, job training, and counseling. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus said to me, "The Saudi role in taking on Al Qaeda, both by force but also using political, social, religious, and educational tools, is one of the most important, least reported positive developments in the war on terror."
Perhaps the most successful country to combat jihadism has been the world's most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia. In 2002 that country seemed destined for a long and painful struggle with the forces of radical Islam. The nation was rocked by terror attacks, and a local Qaeda affiliate, Jemaah Islamiah, appeared to be gaining strength. But eight years later, JI has been marginalized and main-stream political parties have gained ground, all while a young democracy has flowered after the collapse of the Suharto dictatorship.
Magnus Ranstorp of Stockholm's Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies recently published a careful study examining Indonesia's success in beating back extremism. The main lesson, he writes, is to involve not just government but civil society as a whole, including media and cultural figures who can act as counterforces to terrorism. (That approach obviously has greater potential in regions and countries with open and vibrant political systems—Southeast Asia, Turkey, and India—than in the Arab world.)
. . .
The data on public opinion in the Muslim world are now overwhelming. London School of Economics professor Fawaz Gerges has analyzed polls from dozens of Muslim countries over the past few years. He notes that in a range of places—Jordan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Lebanon, and Bangladesh—there have been substantial declines in the number of people who say suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets can be justified to defend Islam. Wide majorities say such attacks are, at most, rarely acceptable.
. . .
This shift does not reflect a turn away from religiosity or even from a backward conception of Islam. That ideological struggle persists and will take decades, not years, to resolve itself. But the battle against jihadism has fared much better, much sooner, than anyone could have imagined.
The exceptions to this picture readily spring to mind — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen. But consider the conditions in those countries. In Afghanistan, jihadist ideology has wrapped itself around a genuine ethnic struggle in which Pashtuns feel that they are being dispossessed by rival groups. In Pakistan, the regime is still where Saudi Arabia was in 2003 and 2004: slowly coming to realize that the extremism it had fostered has now become a threat to its own survival. In Yemen, the state simply lacks the basic capacity to fight back. So the rule might simply be that in those places where a government lacks the desire, will, or capacity to fight jihadism, Al Qaeda can continue to thrive.
But the nature of the enemy is now quite different. It is not a movement capable of winning over the Arab street. Its political appeal does not make rulers tremble. The video messages of bin Laden and Zawahiri once unsettled moderate regimes. Now they are mostly dismissed as almost comical attempts to find popular causes to latch onto. (After the financial crash, bin Laden tried his hand at bashing greedy bankers.)
This is not an argument to relax our efforts to hunt down militants. Al Qaeda remains a group of relentless, ruthless killers who are trying to recruit other fanatics to carry out hideous attacks that would do terrible damage to civilized society. But the group's aura is gone, its political influence limited. Its few remaining fighters are spread thinly throughout the world and face hostile environments almost everywhere.
America is no longer engaged in a civilizational struggle throughout the Muslim world, but a military and intelligence campaign in a set of discrete places. Now, that latter struggle might well require politics, diplomacy, and development assistance—in the manner that good foreign policy always does (Petraeus calls this a "whole-of-government strategy"). We have allies; we need to support them. But the target is only a handful of extremist organizations that have found a small group of fanatics to carry out their plans. To put it another way, even if the United States pursues a broad and successful effort at nation building in Afghanistan and Yemen, does anyone really think that will deter the next Nigerian misfit—or fanatic from Detroit—from getting on a plane with chemicals in his underwear? Such people cannot be won over. They cannot be reasoned with; they can only be captured or killed.
The enemy is not vast; the swamp is being drained. Al Qaeda has already lost in the realm of ideology. What remains is the battle to defeat it in the nooks, crannies, and crevices of the real world.
There's much more at the link. Very highly recommended reading.
As I said, taken together, these articles suggest that the threat from radical Islam is no longer as serious as it once was deemed. The danger remains, of course: any fanatic willing to die for an ideal can cause significant death and destruction. However, if the authors above are to be believed, the threat of a widespread radicalization of the Islamic world appears to be on the wane.
May it be so!