Sunday, October 05, 2003

The End of Al-Qaeda

Donald Sensing links to an assessment by Singaporean terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna that Al-Qaeda has nearly been exterminated. In "the past 24 months, al-Qaeda has severely suffered and ... within one year al-Qaeda will be totally destroyed". But he warned that, in going out of business, Al-Qaeda's had redefined itself as an enabler rather than a direct supplier of terrorist services. "Al-Qaeda does not pose the same level of threat it posed in the past and today most of the attacks are being conducted by groups armed, trained and financed by al-Qaeda and not by al-Qaeda itself", so that while in declining, it has passed on the baton to other groups willing to take its place. What Professor Gunaratna does not answer is how an Al-Qaeda penetrated by American intelligence can safely nurture budding terrorist organizations without compromising them. But clearly Gunaratna was surprised at American gains. A year earlier, he saw little chance that Al-Qaeda would be overthrown. An interview with the Indian Express in August, 2002 made it clear he thought them a strong as ever.

Q: Nearly a year after 9/11 how do you assess the US-led effort to neutralise the Al Qaeda?

A: I think it has been a failure. Their biggest failure was their inability to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, Al Zawahiri, Mullah Omar. Unless these three are killed or caught the US cannot say they have been successful. The Al Qaeda can replenish its human losses and material wastage as long as these leaders are alive. What the US has done is only destroy their training camps. As a result, the Al Qaeda has decentralised operations into regional theatres like Somalia, Indonesia, Yemen, Chechnya, the Pankshi Valley in Georgia and others. This means that the Al Qaeda will survive for a longer period.

Today he is giving them a year to live. The surprise is that Al-Qaeda agrees with Gunaratna's new pessimistic assessment. According to Amir Taheri, Osama Bin Laden's deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri has just circulated a tape calling for a strategic retreat. "In a taped message, played in Islamist cells all over the world and broadcast in part by two Arab satellite-TV channels, the Egyptian (believed to be hiding either in Pakistan or in Iran) presents the strategy in three segments."

  1. A campaign to seize power in Muslim countries, especially Pakistan;
  2. Expanded efforts to attack the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan; and
  3. The exploitation of instability in Muslim countries like Indonesia, Yemen and Somalia.

Taheri points out that the al-Zawahiri tapes mark a return to a conception, once rejected by Osama Bin Laden, that radical Islamism needed to gain strength within the Muslim world before taking on the "the last champion of unbelief in the world" -- the United States of America. Where Bin Laden felt ready to challenge America directly, al-Zawahiri is tacitly acknowledging the need to gradually seize state power within the Islamic world as a prelude to the great showdown. Al-Zawahiri is seeking two things in particular: a nuclear weapon through Pakistan and the creation of a 'Vietnam' in Iraq and Afghanistan which would allow the western left to withdraw the forces confronting the Islamic terrorists.

If so, Al-Zawahiri's strategy to seize power in Pakistan is off to a bad start. It is uncertain whether he even has the capability to save himself. "Oct. 03, 2003 ANGORE ADDA, Pakistan - Pakistani soldiers swooped down on an al Qaeda mountain hide-out in  the country's forbidding tribal region Thursday, killing 12 suspected terrorists and capturing 18 others in the military's largest-ever offensive against Osama bin Laden's network. It was not clear whether any senior al Qaeda figures were among the dead or the captured, who all appeared to be foreigners, army officials said. The area in Pakistan's fiercely autonomous Waziristan region has long been considered a likely hiding place for bin Laden, a Saudi exile, and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian." Certainly the ring is closing on the Egyptian. Pakistani newspapers report that "Authorities in the semi-autonomous South Waziristan tribal region are being given a three-day deadline to tribes, calling on them to surrender Al Qaeda suspects and take punitive action against anyone harbouring terrorists" who had escaped from the deadly raid.

Considering these circumstances, it is doubtful whether Gunaratna's assessment that Al-Qaeda will continue to arm, train and finance franchisees will prove realistic. Any clandestine operator worth the name would shun it like the plague. A dying clandestine organization is terminally infected with double-agents, compromised safe houses, dubious funding sources as well as the legatee of a failed strategic model, and Al-Qaeda is no exception. The only hope for a radical Islamic successor would be to develop a new organization and sidestep the failures of the old ones. It has become increasingly likely that Al-Qaeda, like the Nihon Kaigun after the Marianas Turkey Shoot, is now a spent force. What America must await is its successor, which may appear at any moment, as the kamikazes did at Lingayen, in the clear skies above a still unsuspecting world.