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Does Al Qaeda Benefit from Gaza?

Foreign Policy blogger Marc Lynch (a.k.a. Abu Aardvark) has an interesting post up at FP’s new-minted digital playground, which has already drawn lurid attention to itself for its inclusion of Israel Lobby theorist Stephen Walt and his dubious "thought experiments." Lynch is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, and, much like his cheerleader and confrere-at-the-keyboard Juan Cole, has built a reputation as a Mideast analyst who sees almost every effort to stamp out jihadism as an unintentional bolster to jihadism. Case in point: His latest claim that Israel’s buffeting of Hamas is sweet music to the ears of Al Qaeda:

Israel’s assault on Gaza has really created an almost unbelievable no-lose situation for al-Qaeda. If Hamas "wins", then al-Qaeda gets to share in the benefits of the political losses incurred by its Western and Arab enemies (Zawahiri mentions Mubarak and the Saudis in this tape, but not the Jordanians) and can try to take advantage of the political upheavals which could follow. If Hamas "loses", al-Qaeda still wins. It will shed no tears at seeing one of its bitterest and most dangerous rivals take a beating at Israel’s hands or losing control of a government that they have consistently decried as illegitimate and misguided. Either way, the Gaza crisis guarantees that a far more radicalized Islamic world will face the incoming Obama administration — potentially severely blunting the challenge which al-Qaeda clearly felt after the election (hence Zawahiri’s attempt to pre-emptively discredit Obama by declaring the attack Obama’s "gift" to Muslims).

The way this crisis is playing out shows the bankruptcy and strategic dangers of trying to simply reduce Hamas to part of an undifferentiated "global terrorist front". The Muslim Brotherhood, from whence Hamas evolved twenty years ago, is no friend of the United States or Israel but is nevertheless one of al-Qaeda’s fiercest rivals. Zawahiri himself penned one of the most famous anti-Brotherhood tracts, Bitter Harvest. Over the last few years, the doctrinal and political conflict between the Brotherhood and al-Qaeda’s salafi-jihadism has become one of the most active fault-lines in Islamist politics. As ‘Abu Qandahar’ wrote on al-Qaeda’s key al-Ekhlaas forum in October 2007, the "Islamic world is divided between two projects, jihad and Ikhwan [Brotherhood]."

Lynch’s reason for how Al Qaeda "wins" if Hamas loses is that the latter terror group’s monopoly on Gaza would effectively be broken, thus allowing the former to finally infilitrate (cf. "Up to now, AQ-minded groups have had little success in penetrating Gaza, because Hamas had it locked. Now they clearly have high hopes of finding an entree with a radicalized, devastated population and a weakened Hamas.").  If this does in fact happen, then I wonder if Lynch has extrapolated the likely consequences, which tell against his implied thesis that military incursions such as these are inherently self-defeating. Al Qaeda’s setting up shop right next door to Israel would almost certainly do two things: 1. Give Israel even greater legitimacy to wage war there, if not invite a U.S./international military presence; 2. Change the world’s perception of the zone of conflict from that of a colonial-nationalist struggle into that of a… "global terrorist front." (What price immediate cease-fires when the premier enemy of our time, with a trail of carnage stretching from New York to London to Madrid, is doing the fighting?) 

What Lynch doesn’t acknowledge — at least not in this post — is that Al Qaeda’s flagging popularity is due in large part to its military and political defeat in Iraq,  where it (foolishly) decided to create a cynosure of Islamist terror and test out the prospects of a neo-caliphate. If it should try to do this again, and in the one place it can ill afford to have Muslims grow more disillusioned with its activities, might we expect the realist school to indulge us with the following headline: "and the winner is… America!"?

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