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Al-Qaida Influence Ebbs, but No Success for U.S.

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Al-Qaida Influence Ebbs, but No Success for U.S.

Al-Qaida Influence Ebbs, but No Success for U.S.

Al-Qaida Influence Ebbs, but No Success for U.S.

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, talks about his op-ed piece in Sunday's San Jose Mercury News, where he argues that attacks by Hezbollah and pressing local issues have reduced al-Qaida to a bit player in the Middle East. But, he says, al-Qaida's failure does not equal American success.

CONAN: Last week, after two weeks of intense fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, al-Qaida chimed in. Last Thursday, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's number two, called for jihad against Israel and its supporters. To Shibley Telhami, it's an attempt by al-Qaida to get in on Hezbollah's act. It's in an op-ed that appeared in Sunday's editions of the San Jose Mercury News.

He wrote that a combination of the conflict in Lebanon, bloody tactics in Iraq, and pressing local issues have reduced al-Qaida to a bit player in the Middle East. But that doesn't mean the group isn't still dangerous, and he also argues that al-Qaida's failure does not equal American success.

We've posted a link to his op-ed at our Web site. You can go to And Shibley Telhami joins us now. He's the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and a nonresident senior fellow at the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution. He's wish us from his home in Maryland. Nice to have you back on the program.

Professor SHIBLEY TELHAMI (Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland; Fellow, Brookings Institution): Good to be with you again.

CONAN: This new video from al-Qaida calls for Muslim unity in Lebanon, but up until now and certainly for the last several years, al-Qaida has been (unintelligible) anti-Shiite.

Prof. TELHAMI: Well what's interesting is that Hezbollah's popularity has really exposed al-Qaida's failure to win hearts in the Arab world. A lot of people obviously sympathize with their attacks on the U.S. We see that in the polls. The anti-Americanism, they benefited from that. They benefited from the popularity of the insurgency in Iraq. But their message of getting a puritanical Taliban-like regime in the Muslim world to eradicate the states and have one political order, that has never resonated across the Arab world.

And I think what Hezbollah did is really expose the failure, and it did in a couple of ways. Remember, just before this crisis emerged, before Hezbollah took the Israeli soldiers hostage and the Israel attacks on Lebanon, what you had was a war of words going on between al-Qaida and Hezbollah. Al-Qaida was attacking Hezbollah not only for being heretical as a Shia organization, but also as shielding Israel from the attacks by its group or other groups, and obviously killing Shias in Iraq.

Now they have a different message. They call for unity. They even use the unity of the mustadafin(ph). This is a term that Hezbollah has used to refer to people who are not taken seriously, people who are considered to be weak, people who are ignored - and that includes the Shia and the Muslims - to unite.

And I think what is happening here is they were really stunned, I think, by the fact that the Arab world, including the Sunni Muslim world -clergy in Egypt and Jordan and Qatar and elsewhere - were attacking those who initially issued fatwas which said do not cooperate with the Shia Hezbollah. The popularity that was expressed - people in Egypt saying, if Hezbollah is Shia, then we're all Shia. Now that took them by surprise.

And Nasrallah, anyway, achieved very quickly a status in the Arab world akin to the status of Gamal Abdul al-Nasser, the Egyptian leader, the pan-Arab leader of the 1950s, a very popular man in the Arab world. Bin Laden never had major demonstrations on his behalf in Arab and Muslim countries. He never acquired the kind of popularity. And people see Nasrallah as being more genuine, as reflecting a national movement, even if he has a religious agenda. And I think this is certainly putting Bin Laden in the background, and that's why I think they were getting into this act.

CONAN: In terms of shielding - al-Qaida's accusation that Hezbollah was shielding Israel from attacks, meaning they wouldn't let al-Qaida establish bases in southern Lebanon?

Prof. TELHAMI: Absolutely. You know, al-Qaida has been trying to get closer to the Arab-Israeli front. Frankly, it has been trying to break into the Palestinian areas and Hamas, too, has been reluctant to allow them in in any shape or form, and certainly the Palestinian Authority has. People don't see them as their natural allies in this fight. These are local - we have lumped all these Islamic groups together as if they're one and the same. Hezbollah certainly carries out terrorist attacks against civilians, Hamas does too, but these are, at the core, local organizations with grassroots support.

They're very different from al-Qaida. Al-Qaida is - it really has nothing positive to offer except for the terrorism; and these groups, yes, they engage in terrorism as an instrument, but they're much more than that, and that's one of the things that we fail to differentiate in our discourse.

CONAN: And you mention in your op-ed Somalia, where Islamists have recently taken power. An offer of help from al-Qaida, they said eh, not so much.

Prof. TELHAMI: Exactly. I think even, I mean, when you look at the language of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which won the elections, the language of Hamas, which won elections in the Palestinian areas. Yes, they're Islamists and they do have Islamists agendas, but when you ask Arabs, including Arabs who support them, do you think that the state should be serving the interests of Muslim broadly or the interests of their citizens, most of them are focused on the state, and the vast majority say states should serve the interests of the citizens.

Yes, they want Islam to play a role in government, but their agenda is very different from al-Qaida's. We see that when I ask in the public opinion polling, do you believe that - what aspect of al-Qaida do you sympathize with most? The plurality says the fact that they stand up to America. Only about 6 percent say they sympathize with the advocacy of puritanical Taliban-like state.

People are not really finding its message as something that they like. And even with Hezbollah, people aren't supporting Nasrallah in Egypt of Saudi Arabia or Jordan because of his religious message. He's a Shiite clergy, after all. Most of them are Sunni. Clearly they're not adopting his notion of what religion should be or the role of religion in politics.

He's resonating with them because he's empowering them, because they see him - they want to be taken seriously and he's in a way registering that he can be taken seriously and they - particularly in the opposition to Israel and the United States, and I think that's a prevailing sentiment across the board.

The issue here is not the religious agenda of these groups. Sure, that resonates with the locals, that's one reason why there were strong - the services as well as the message itself. But at the core, these are not al-Qaida groups, and al-Qaida feels left out.

CONAN: We're talking with Shibley Telhami today on the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. Again, if you'd like to read his op-ed, you can go to our Web site at And this is TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And, Shibley Telhami, you mentioned those opinion polls. There were a couple of interesting opinions when you asked people whether they think of themselves as Muslims first or as citizens of whatever country it happened to be, Egypt, Saudi Arabia...

Prof. TELHAMI: Yes, and I've been watching this very closely over the past five years, and it's evolved a lot. We saw, for example, immediately after the Iraq War there was an increase in the number of people who identified themselves as Muslim first; in four out of six countries, a plurality or a majority said Muslim first.

In the most recent one last year we found a shift in which in four out of the six countries, people identified themselves with the state first, as Egyptians or Jordanians or Saudis. And that's interesting in and of itself. And I think it's explained by the fact, in part, by their fear of the anarchy that happened in Iraq. They're terrified by the notion that the disintegration of the state would lead to what they see in Iraq, which is - universally they see as more troubling than anything they have.

So anarchy terrifies them more than even strong states. And second, I think the very fact that al-Qaida's message failed. Zarqawi, they may have wanted him to give America a bloody nose in Iraq, the frustration was there, but few wanted this man to rule over their children, over their future, to head their government.

And so you have this combination, which in my judgment added to a kind of a rallying behind the state in last year's survey. However, if I were to do a survey now, I'm not sure what I'll find. I think what we see is this identity is in flux; it's depending on how they're making assessments.

Nasrallah is popular now, Hezbollah is popular, and governments are not popular in the Arab world. They're seen as weak and impotent. One way or the other, they're unable to do anything at all to get a U.N. resolution or to stop the fighting or to intervene or to fight a war. And people often don't differentiate between government and the state. Obviously, it's a different thing; government and state are not the same. But sometimes they mix the two in their mind and it's very difficult to know what the next poll's going to show.

CONAN: We just have a few seconds left. But in 30 seconds, if al-Qaida's ideology, its message, is not falling on fertile ground, why is that not a success in the battle of ideas against the United States?

Prof. TELHAMI: Well, it is a success, but it can't be exploited as a success if in fact people think America now is a bigger threat than it was before. It can't be adopted. For example, in the surveys, the United States is identified as one of the two biggest threats - the other one being Israel - by a majority of Arabs, even more than any other country or any other group.

That is a big problem, particularly as the United States is trying to spread its agenda. And that's one reason why I think the notion of the new Middle East put forth by Secretary Rice made people worry that maybe America has an agenda that they fear.

CONAN: Shibley Telhami, thanks very much.

Prof. TELHAMI: My pleasure.

CONAN: Mr. Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and a nonresident senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. You can read his op-ed and all of our previous opinion pages at our Web site, This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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