Tuesday, September 16, 2008

They still don’t get al-Qaeda

Top US counterterrorism officials on Monday once again demonstrated how little they understand “terrorism” as a tool or the various organizations that fall under its descriptive umbrella. Seven years have elapsed since al-Qaeda struck at the heart of the United States and about twice as much since the organization first popped up on intelligence agencies’ radar screens, which should have given intelligence "experts" plenty of time to understand the phenomenon and its root causes. And yet...

Dell Dailey, the US State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, claims that after years of killing civilians in acts of terror, al-Qaeda is losing its appeal and now faces a possible implosion. He points out that vastly more Muslims than Westerners are killed by al-Qaeda suicide and car bombs — especially in Iraq, where, we are told, local tribes have turned against al-Qaeda in the past two years.

Sadly for Dailey, his understanding of al-Qaeda is flawed on at least two fundamental aspects. First, since Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda has undergone an important transformation and is no longer the vertical, corporate-like organization that it was in the 1990s and early 2000s. Rather, it has turned into a lateral organization with little hierarchy or even structure. In fact, so loose has it become that referring to it as an organization is probably misleading. In the past five years or so, al-Qaeda has instead transformed into a philosophy, an ideology that does not require top-down decisionmaking to resist the opponent.

What this means, of course, is that while “resisting Western encroachment” is al-Qaeda’s overarching ideology, al-Qaeda-ism has become localized. Resistance in, say, Pakistan, differs markedly from resistance in Morocco, or Algeria or the Philippines, where the guiding ideology becomes mixed with very local sets of grievances, political objectives, economics and so on. To claim that al-Qaeda is “imploding” or losing its appeal worldwide is to put all those countries that are facing “Islamic” insurgencies — which includes the Philippines, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Bosnia, Russia, China, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, to name some — in the same basket.

Dailey’s second mistake stems from the Bush administration’s blunders in Iraq and the fabricated truths it relied on post-facto to justify the illegal invasion of the country. Every day, US official refer to al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), as if Iraq were a new front in the US’ war against Osama bin Laden and his organization. The truth is, AQI isn’t an extension of OBL’s war against the West; it is Sunni resistance to US occupation by groups and individuals who subscribe to al-Qaeda-ism, with its own set of local variables. By claiming that al-Qaeda is active in Iraq, the US is merely trying to justify the invasion as part of the “war on terror” and to legitimize the claim, made before the invasion, that there existed an Iraqi-AQ connection. OBL and his henchmen may have issued videotapes calling on Sunnis in Iraq to resist the US, but this was mere rhetoric. The resistance is very local, and no one is calling the shots from some AQ Central in Pakistan or Afghanistan.

These two flaws — which certainly are not Dailey’s alone but remain widespread within the intelligence community — then make it possible for US Undersecretary of State James Glassman to miss the point altogether, when he says that he is “skeptical” al-Qaeda is changing its ways in a matter that would make it resemble other “terrorist” organizations such as Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah, which combine local services, governance, schools and politics with extremism. In Glassman’s view, al-Qaeda is a “cult of death” and ergo it is unlikely to turn into an organization with popular appeal. Of course, were he cognizant of the fact that AQ is not, as we have seen, a monolithic organization, he would have realized that rather than being fixed and imploding, AQ is, by virtue of its many local iterations, the very epitome of transformation, which could easily include forms that resemble Hezbollah and Hamas, also movements of resistance that have “matured” into political parties.

This therefore makes Glassman’s prediction that an al-Qaeda than can adapt would be a far more dangerous al-Qaeda a moot point. It already is.

Ironically, as the State Department “experts” were exposing their lack of understanding of AQ, US intelligence was once again making the now-familiar claim that al-Qaeda had “regenerated” its leadership and continued to represent the greatest threat to the US.

From claims of “implosion” to “regeneration,” those in charge of fighting terrorism remain as blind as they were on that pristine morning in September seven years ago.

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