In the summer of 2006, Marine Colonel Peter Devlin authored an intelligence assessment that all but conceded defeat in al-Anbar province in Iraq. “The social and political situation has deteriorated to a point that [Multi-National Forces] and [Iraqi Security Forces] are no longer capable of militarily defeating the insurgency in al-Anbar,” his report stated. The tribal system in the province had collapsed; violence and criminality ruled people’s lives. The provincial economy was in a shambles; Anbaris, except for those enriched by criminality and corruption, lived largely hand to mouth. Sunni residents on the whole detested al-Qaeda, but viewed the organization as their defender of last resort against a campaign of sectarian cleansing by the central government in Baghdad. For the first time in its history, al-Qaeda had taken hold of a substantial piece of ground and had implemented its brand of Islamist governance in it.
The jihadist government was both ugly and ruthlessly effective. Al-Qaeda operatives imposed a strict and brutal interpretation of Shari’a law on a largely secular Sunni tribal culture. The jihadists banned tobacco use and chopped off the fingers of anyone caught smoking. Al-Qaeda operatives forced temporary marriages (presumably allowed under their version of Shari’a law) on local women to satisfy their desire for sex. Senior al-Qaeda leaders—most of them foreigners—demanded marriages with the sisters and daughters of sheiks to cement their bonds to the tribes. Jihadists assassinated rivals and then booby-trapped their bodies to kill family members coming to collect them for burial. Headless corpses lay in the streets for days at a time, a sacrilegious occurrence in a religion that demanded burial within twenty-four hours of death. In short, what al-Qaeda offered was a trip back to the Dark Ages.
What the jihadists wanted was a return to a golden age when Islamic civilization challenged Europe and Asia for supremacy. Control of a sanctuary in Iraq was just the first step in a deliberate plan to control the wider Middle East, a strategy spelled out in a 2005 letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two man in al-Qaeda, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. From their sanctuary in Iraq, jihadists could destabilize the neighboring states of Syria, Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. The collapse of these regimes would enable jihadists to control tens of millions of Muslims and the oil supplies on which Europe, Japan, and China relied to fuel their economies. A jihadist victory in Egypt would complete the encirclement of Israel, which would then be destroyed. Meanwhile, the United States, the “far enemy,” would be destabilized by a campaign of terrorism and economic sabotage. The end result would be the creation of a new Islamic caliphate that would rival the power of the West and restore the glory of Islam.
Al-Qaeda’s vision was appealing to a certain segment of the Islamic world, but it was fundamentally ahistorical. The Islamic golden age was a time when secularism, not sectarianism, prevailed. Islamic scholars gave the world a number of important advances in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, literature, and other disciplines. They did so through research and learning in a variety of intellectual pursuits, exactly the opposite educational program of jihadist madrassas, which focus primarily on Islamic studies. In short, jihadists want to restore the glory of the Islamic golden age without understanding what made it golden in the first place.
In Iraq, al-Qaeda’s ideology and ruthlessness were its undoing. Anbari sheiks, tired of jihadist brutality and the interruption of the smuggling networks that were the tribal life blood, rose up to ally with American forces and destroy their tormenters. The resulting Awakening tore the heart out of al-Qaeda in Iraq and was a major reason for the success of the surge in 2007 and 2008. It turns out that when presented with the reality vice the vision of jihadist government, Sunni Arabs did not like what they saw. The surge was a major strategic defeat for al-Qaeda, one regrettably squandered by the failure of the United States to remain engaged in Iraq over the long haul.
Despite what they view as a temporary setback in Iraq, jihadists have not altered their goals. Indeed, the civil war in Syria has given al-Qaeda another battleground on which to project its energies, with the objective of creating a jihadist sanctuary in the heart of the Levant. With no surge in the offing, it remains to be seen whether the jihadists will be more successful this time around.