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Q&A With Will McCants on al Qaeda

Zawahiri's Game Plan

Will McCants

  • Country: The United States
  • Title: Former Senior Advisor on Countering Violent Extremism in the U.S. State Department
  • Education: Princeton University
  • Books: Founding Gods, Inventing Nations: Conquest and Culture Myths from Antiquity to Islam (2011)
  • Website: Jihadica

Ten years after the September 11 attacks, how has al Qaeda changed the religious and political conversation in the Islamic world?

On the one hand, al Qaeda has done immense harm to relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. The 9/11 attacks were designed to provoke the United States and its allies to overreact by invading and occupying Muslim nations, which happened in Iraq and Afghanistan and reinforced the idea that the West wants to subjugate Muslims. The attacks also made Muslim minorities in the West the objects of suspicion. On the other hand, al Qaeda's hostility toward and attacks on Muslims who do not share its views engendered a lot of soul searching in the Islamic world about tolerance and legitimate resistance. Moreover, al Qaeda's failure to achieve its goal of creating Islamic states hostile to the West has bolstered the credibility of conservative Muslims engaged in parliamentary politics.

How do you rate Ayman al-Zawahiri's first few months as the organization's new leader? Has he pulled al Qaeda out of the crisis you described in your article?

Zawahiri has made the best of a very bad situation. All of al Qaeda's franchises and close allies have pledged their allegiance to him, and he regularly issues statements about the uprisings in the Arab world. Nevertheless, al Qaeda is not a player in the uprisings, with the exception Yemen's. It is also still dealing with the fallout from the Abbottabad raid that killed bin Laden because the U.S. government has had even more time to study and exploit the documents its special operations forces captured.

As the Arab Spring continues, how valuable is the al Qaeda brand?

Very few of the revolutionaries are appealing to al Qaeda for help, and all of them understand that inviting it would hurt their cause at a time when they badly need international support. Even al Qaeda has realized that its brand has suffered. According to press reports about the documents captured in the Abbottabad raid, bin Laden worried that the al Qaeda name had been damaged by its attacks on civilians. The recent decision of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to operate under the banner of "helpers of the sharia" is further evidence that al Qaeda realizes it has tarnished its own image.

You discuss the importance that many al Qaeda operatives have placed on holding territory. What would capturing a large swath of territory do for the organization?

Al Qaeda lacks the ability to capture territory itself but wants to help do so in order to set up an Islamic state hostile to the West. Al Qaeda is particularly keen to see such a state arise in the Arab Middle East. As Zawahiri has said, failure to achieve this goal means its entire enterprise is pointless. Of course, this project has failed, and Zawahiri has urged people to take the long view. But at some point, hope will not be enough to sustain support for al Qaeda's program.

Terrorists from Gaza recently struck Israel by infiltrating the Sinai Peninsula. Can al Qaeda find a new haven there? What about in Yemen, Somalia, or elsewhere?

Zawahiri has mentioned the Sinai frequently in the past few years and has implored the Bedouin there to help alleviate the Israeli blockade of Gaza. The area may be hospitable to some al Qaeda operatives, but it is not a good place to relocate al Qaeda's command and control due to the continued strength of Egyptian security in the region. Yemen and Somalia are also bad places for al Qaeda Central, but for a different reason: There is too much chaos. That is why al Qaeda Central in the past hunkered down in weak states ruled by Islamists who are hostile to the United States. For the same reason, the leadership of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is going to have a difficult time surviving if the anarchy continues in Yemen.

What do you see as the bottom line of Washington's current al Qaeda strategy?

The core of Washington's strategy against al Qaeda is dismantling the organization and discrediting its brand while arguing and demonstrating that the United States is not waging a war against Muslims. The strategy would be more effective if the Obama administration focused on dismantling and discrediting al Qaeda and resisted the temptation to deploy large numbers of troops to Muslim-majority countries. A superpower is not going to defeat a terrorist organization by attacking and occupying that organization's audience with a large army.

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