Book Review: The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda, by Fawaz A. Gerges

A Publication of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Book Review: The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda, by Fawaz A. Gerges

The Rise and Fall of al-Qaeda, by Fawaz A. Gerges. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. x + 259 pages. n.p.

Reviewed by Professor John Voll, Georgetown University

Terrorism is a major concern for political leaders, military planners, and the general public around the world. The single most visible symbol of this terrorism is al-Qa’ida, the organization that brought about the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001. Much has been written about both this particular group and the broader global phenomena of politico-religious violence, but there is little consensus on the nature of the organization of al-Qa’ida or the threat that it poses. Fawaz Gerges argues that a “terrorism narrative” which believes that “the West remains under constant and imminent threat of attack” from al-Qa’ida “has become institutionalized among policymakers, government officials, and now the general public”(p. 7). In this book, Gerges sets out to refute this narrative, arguing that while terrorism is still a security threat around the world, al-Qa’ida itself “has all but vanished, or at least dwindled to the palest shadow of its former self”(p. 3).

The “terrorism narrative” presents a picture of al-Qa’ida (AQ) as a relatively centralized organization with effective communication among followers and supporters around the world. This structure is seen as beginning in the war-jihad against the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and becoming effectively a global jihad in the 1990s. Its major achievement was the destruction of the World Trade Center, which, in this narrative, strengthened its worldwide influence.

The debate about all aspects of this narrative involves fundamental disagreements about the nature of the history of  al-Qa’ida. Writers like Peter Bergen (2002) and Rohan Gunaratna (2002) provided influential descriptions of the development of AQ as a coherent and relatively centralized organization beginning in the late 1980s. However, Gerges presents a different view of this history, arguing that as “an operationally organized, independent, and centralized transnational group, al-Qa’ida did not exist until the second half of the 1990s”(p. 29). Following 9/11, Gunaratna argued that the “global fight against Al Qaeda will be the defining conflict of the early 21st century”(Gunaratna, 2002, p.221). In contrast, looking back at the first decade of the 21st century, Gerges states, “Contrary to received wisdom, September 11 did not turn out to be al-Qaeda’s baptism by fire, a force multiplier, a game changer. There was no mass following, no river of young recruits to rise up against the ‘impious’ pro-Western rulers”(p. 93). Instead, Bin Ladin’s policies were opposed by major Muslim leaders. Even among those advocating jihad, “the chiefs of the main jihadist groups publically denounced what bin Laden had done”(p. 95).

Another area of debate is in the continuing nature of the organization – whether it has an effective organizational center or if it has become more of a symbol than an organizational structure. Bruce Hoffman argued for the continuing strength and effectiveness of AQ Central. Despite major loses in leadership and losing a secure territorial haven, Hoffman contends that AQ “still retains some form of a centralized command and control structure responsible for gathering intelligence, planning, and perhaps even overseeing spectacular attacks”(Hoffman, 2006, p. 284). Others, like Marc Sageman speak of “leaderless jihad” in which the “world’s most dangerous jihadists no longer answer to al Qaeda”(Sageman, 2008, p. 37). In this debate, Gerges maintains that the “notion of a tightly knit and centralized control presupposes physical links that no longer exist”(p. 189).

In these debates, both sides see a major transition associated with 9/11. Hoffman notes, “On the eve of 9/11, al Qaeda was a unitary organization, assuming the dimensions of a lumbering bureaucracy…[That] now-anachronistic version of al Qaeda had a clear, distinct center of gravity… In the time since 9/11, al Qaeda in essence has transformed itself from a bureaucratic entity… to the clearly less powerful, but nonetheless arguably more resilient, amorphous entity” with a core leadership that “continues to exert some coordination, if not actual command capacity, in terms of commissioning attacks… and approving their execution”(Hoffman, 2006, pp. 282, 286). Gerges presents a similar portrait, but with a virtually ineffective central core leadership: “The bin Laden group developed in the 1990s in a particular context and with a highly centralized and hierarchical structure. Now it has morphed into a fluid, globalized ideological label”(p. 152). In Gerges’ view, the death of Bin Ladin in 2011 emphasizes the trend toward “bottom-up radicalization”(p. 157) in which AQ plays a less pro-active recruitment role.

One important dimension of Gerges’s analysis is the extensive use that he makes of sources from within the jihadi movements. The “terrorist narrative” tends to assume that the jihad movement around the world is monolithic, and appears to have little awareness of the significant diversity of views – even among those who might be considered “radical” or extremist ideologues in the advocacy of jihad. The intellectual, theological, and ideological battles within the Muslim world community are of major significance in the efforts to reduce the threat of terrorism. Gerges concludes that “Al-Qaeda has lost the struggle for Muslim hearts and minds”(p. 201). With the death of Bin Ladin, Gerges expresses the hope that the influence of what he calls the “terrorism narrative” will also come to an end. Gerges provides an important alternative to that narrative that should be read by policy makers and the general public alike.


Bergen, Peter. 2002. Holy War, Inc. New York: Simon & Schuster/ Touchstone.

Gunaratna, Rohan. 2002. Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hoffman, Bruce. 2006. Inside Terrorism. Revised edition. New York: Columbia University Press.

Sageman, Marc. 2008. “The Next Generation of Terror,” FP Foreign Policy (March-April 2008): 37-42.