Friday, January 19, 2007

Whatever Happened To.... al Qaeda?

In the Global War Without End on Terror, George Bush's one recognized success is the apparent demise of al Qaeda. Much is made of the fact that the United States hasn't suffered another terrorist attack since the atrocities of 9/11. Last April, Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte described it as a "somewhat weakened organization" that was pretty much reduced to "serving as an inspiration for some of these terroristically inclined groups elsewhere."

Maybe not. In the latest edition of The New Republic, terrorism expert Peter Bergen says al-Qaeda is back, bigger and badder than ever and it is only a matter of time before it attacks the US again:

"In the months and years immediately following the Taliban's ouster, Al Qaeda lost its main sanctuary and struggled to regroup in the largely lawless zone along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. Key leaders were captured or killed. Years passed during which the group mounted few major attacks.

"But, today, from Algeria to Afghanistan, from Britain to Baghdad, the organization once believed to be on the verge of impotence is again ascendant. Attacks by jihadists have reached epidemic levels in the past three years, with terrorists carrying out dramatic operations in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005, as well as multiple suicide attacks across the Middle East and Asia--not only in Iraq, but also in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, and Indonesia. Meanwhile, jihadists have made inroads in the horn of Africa; the Taliban's efforts to turn Afghanistan back into a failed state appear to be succeeding; and Al Qaeda's Iraqi branch recently declared sovereignty over the country's vast Anbar province.

"The story of Al Qaeda's renaissance begins with its eviction from Afghanistan in late 2001. Unfortunately, the group didn't disintegrate--it merely moved across the border to the tribal regions of western Pakistan, where today it operates a network of training camps. A former American intelligence official stationed in Pakistan told me that there are currently more than 2,000 foreign fighters in the region.

"...on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the Taliban has staged a comeback while virtually merging with Al Qaeda. The Taliban were a provincial bunch when they held power in Afghanistan, but, in the past couple of years, they have increasingly identified as part of the global jihadist movement, their rhetoric full of references to Iraq and Palestine in a manner that mirrors bin Laden's public statements.

Bergen predicts that al-Qaeda will be around for years to come but he gives four reasons why the group's days are numbered:

"First, it has killed a lot of Muslims. This is doubly problematic for Al Qaeda, as the Koran forbids killing both civilians and fellow Muslims.

"Second, while bin Laden enjoys personal popularity in much of the Muslim world, this popularity does not translate into mass support for Al Qaeda--the kind of mass support that, say, Hezbollah enjoys in Lebanon. This is not surprising, since there are no Al Qaeda social welfare services, schools, hospitals, or clinics.

"Third, Al Qaeda's leaders have constantly expanded their list of enemies, to the point where it now includes all Middle Eastern regimes; Muslims who don't share their views; most Western countries; Jews and Christians; the governments of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Russia; most news organizations; the United Nations; and international NGOs. It's very hard to think of a category of person, institution, or government that Al Qaeda does not oppose. Making a world of enemies is never a winning strategy.

"Finally, we know what bin Laden is against; but what is he really for? If you asked him, he would say the restoration of the caliphate. For bin Laden, that doesn't mean the return of something like the Ottoman Empire, but rather the installation of Taliban-style theocracies stretching from Indonesia to Morocco. A silent majority of Muslims don't want that."

Even though al-Qaeda's long-term prospects are poor, Bergen says the Western presence in Afghanistan and Iraq is fueling the terrorists, garnering al-Qaeda support and giving it a powerful recruiting tool. He foresees two types of attacks al-Qaeda most wants to inflict on the West - bringing down an airliner and detonation of a radiological "dirty" bomb, probably in a European city. The first might devastate global aviation and tourism, the latter could easily undermine global investor confidence.

George Bush had a real chance to destroy al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001. Instead he gave al-Qaeda what it hoped for most, he invaded Iraq. We're not going to get rid of al-Qaeda now. That job has to be taken up by the Arab states themselves.

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