Mar 15, 2004

Are they winning? Special to Site

Are They Winning?
The complex multiple attacks in Madrid that killed some two hundred people as they went to work last Thursday morning demonstrate that the al Qaeda network remains very much in business. The attacks came with total surprise despite the fact that two wars have been fought in the name of winning the War on Terrorism, and untold tens of billions of dollars have been spent in an effort to break the back of al Qaeda. Any normal organization that had suffered the loss of its base in Afghanistan and most of whose top leaders had been captured or killed in the two and half years since the September 11 attacks on Washington and New York would have gone out of business by now. But al Qaeda is not a normal organization. Al Qaeda is not like some mafia family where if you arrest all the members of the family it will simply cease to exist. Al Qaeda the organization is morphing into al Qaeda the ideological movement and while it is relatively simple matter to arrest people it's altogether another matter to arrest the spread of ideas.

In past years al Qaeda the organization has evolved into an ideology of "bin Ladenism," an ideology which can be summarized as fervent opposition to Western foreign policies in the Middle East and the desire for regime change and the rule of sharia, Islamic law, across the Muslim world. This ideology has reached a vast global audience as a result of the wide dissemination of bin Laden's multiple statements since the 9/11 attacks. Also the Internet has created a multiplier effect for al Qaeda's ideas. On websites with names like Al Neda, "the Call" in Arabic, al Qaeda disseminates its propaganda and even explosive manuals. Now it is no longer necessary to go to Afghanistan to sit at the feet of al Qaeda's leaders or to obtain explosives training. Signing up for the jihad is a click of a mouse away.

Bin Ladenism will never enjoy the mass appeal of other destructive ideologies of the modern era such as communism, but it certainly enjoys wider support today than the secular Arab socialism that gripped much of the Middle East in past decades. And this means that we have barely begun the war with al Qaeda and its affiliated groups because many thousands of underemployed, disaffected men in the Muslim world will continue to embrace bin Laden's doctrine of violent anti-Westernism. In a telling survey of opinion in the Muslim world in 2003 in countries as diverse as Morocco, Indonesia, Jordan and Turkey people expressed more "confidence" in bin Laden then President Bush by significant margins.

With the attacks in Madrid al Qaeda has demonstrated the ability to strike a devastating blow in a European capital and to influence the course of the Spanish election, a result on par with the September 11 attacks in terms of a psychological blow to the West. The attacks should not have been a surprise. One of the defining hallmarks of al Qaeda is its patience. Al Qaeda took five years to plan the 1998 attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than two hundred people and it took the group at least three years to plan the September 11th attacks. Just because bin Laden's followers had not been able to strike either in the United States or Europe since the September 11th attacks did not mean that they had stopped plotting to do so. Al Qaeda struck in Madrid at the time of its choosing at a moment when it could create the largest number of body bags and create the greatest psychological effect. Moreover, al Qaeda is operating on a very different timeline than most of us. Our event horizon usually only extends to next year, or next election cycle. For bin Laden's followers there is an inevitable Clash of Civilizations coming that they are going to win in the long term, and by the long term they mean centuries. Ayman al Zawahiri, bin Laden's deputy pointed out in his 2001 autobiography that it took two centuries to eject the Crusaders from the Middle East during the Middle Ages. Al Zawahiri counsels the same patient approach to defeating the "Crusaders" today.

A further reason the attacks in Spain should not have been surprising is that the most reliable guide to the al Qaeda network's actions are the words of it chief ideologue Osama bin Laden. In October 2003 bin Laden released a widely publicized audiotape calling for attacks on countries supplying coalition forces for the Iraq war including Britain, Spain and Italy. Since that statement there was an attack on an Italian police barracks in southern Iraq that killed seventeen by a group linked to al Qaeda, and an attack on the British consulate in Istanbul. And now come the multiple attacks in Madrid. A videotaped claim of responsibility by someone describing himself as a spokesman for al Qaeda's military wing in Europe referred to Spain's support of the Iraq war as the rationale for the Madrid attacks.

In addition to the Spanish government's support for the Iraq war, Spain was a natural target for al Qaeda because Judge Baltasar Garzon, one of Spain's most prominent judges, has taken a proactive stance against al Qaeda. Indeed, the only jurisdiction that bin Laden has been indicted in for his role in the September 11th attacks is Spain. Moreover, al Qaeda has long had a presence in Spain. Mohammed Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker traveled to Spain twice in 2001. Finally, despite the fact that Muslims have not controlled any part of Spain for more than five centuries, one of al Qaeda's oft-stated aims has been to claim Andalusia in southern Spain back into the orbit of Muslim rule.

It is not only in Spain that al Qaeda has seen some recent "successes". Al Qaeda's multiple attacks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's capital, last year that killed dozens demonstrated that the Saudis do not have control of their own capital. In December, shortly after Ayman al-Zawahiri called for attacks on Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf, the general narrowly survived two serious assassination attempts. Killing Musharraf remains one of al Qaeda's central aims in the hope that his death would throw Pakistan into chaos and end the country's cooperation in hunting down members of al Qaeda. Meanwhile, religious parties sympathetic to al Qaeda now control Pakistan's North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan, regions on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan where al Qaeda members have sought refuge. Finally, as the attacks in Madrid demonstrate, the Iraq war has energized al Qaeda and its affiliates. As one senior US intelligence official told me: "If Osama believed in Christmas he'd want us in Iraq, that's what he'd want under his Christmas tree."