Jan 19, 2007

The Return of al Qaeda, The New Republic


Where You Bin?

by Peter Bergen   Issue date: 01.29.07

Osama bin Laden will turn 50 this year. But, when we picture him today, most Westerners imagine a man who, addled physically by disease and psychologically by the repeated blows the United States has dealt his cause, looks much older than his age: a gaunt figure limping from cave to cave along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, one step ahead of U.S. forces--surrounded, perhaps, by a small group of loyalists but cut off from the rest of the world, his once formidable ability to mastermind dramatic acts of violence now rendered nearly nonexistent.  

As for Al Qaeda, the terrorist group bin Laden founded nearly two decades ago, Americans have been told that it, too, is unhealthy, isolated, and in decline. A National Intelligence Estimate declassified in September 2006 opens with the observation that "United States-led counterterrorism efforts have seriously damaged the leadership of [Al Qaeda] and disrupted its operations." At a press conference the next month, President Bush affirmed, "Absolutely, we're winning. Al Qaeda is on the run." American officials aren't the only ones who believe this. In July 2005, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf told reporters that "Al Qaeda does not exist in Pakistan anymore." More recently, Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria opined that "Al Qaeda Central ... appears to have turned into a communications company. It's capable of producing the occasional jihadist cassette, but not actual jihad." In Washington, the consensus view is that, while Bush's foreign policy has been an overall disaster, he still can lay claim to one key achievement: severely weakening Al Qaeda in the five years since September 11. 

There was a time when that was true. 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.

Still, many have clung to the view that Al Qaeda remains a shell of its former self. They argue, as Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte did last April, that Al Qaeda, "a somewhat weakened organization," is "more in the mode of serving as an inspiration for some of these terroristically inclined groups elsewhere." Newsweek's Zakaria echoed this analysis. "Al Qaeda Central," he wrote last year, "no longer has much to do with the specific terrorist attacks--even the most bloody ones, in Madrid, Sinai and London--that have taken place in the past three years. These appear to be the work of smaller, local groups, often inspired by Al Qaeda but not directed by it." 

Certainly, there are plenty of examples of freelance terrorists acting in Al Qaeda's name--such as the seven men arrested in Miami last summer who allegedly plotted to blow up federal buildings in Florida. But the existence of Al Qaeda imitators does not prove the obsolescence of the real thing. Far from it: There is considerable evidence that, over the last few years, Al Qaeda has managed to regroup; and there is reason to believe that, over the next few years, it will grow stronger still. More than at any time since September 11, Osama bin Laden's deadly outfit is back in business. 

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. The camps are relatively modest in size. "People want to see barracks. [In fact,] the camps use dry riverbeds for shooting and are housed in compounds for 20 people, where they are taught calisthenics and bomb-making," a senior American military intelligence official explains. The existence of these camps bodes well for Al Qaeda, since terrorist plots have a much higher chance of success if some of the cell's members have received personal training in bomb-making and terrorist tradecraft rather than merely reading about such matters on the Internet--as many freelance terrorists have done. Just as it would be absurd to argue that U.S. troops could be trained over the Internet instead of at boot camp, so, too, it turns out that effective terrorists need to have attended terrorist training facilities. 

The tribal areas of Pakistan have proved to be a comfortable home for Al Qaeda--and that isn't going to change. The Pakistani government has already concluded peace agreements with local militants (but not, obviously, Al Qaeda) in two of the seven federally administered tribal areas along the Afghan border, and it is likely to reach additional peace deals this year. That means the Pakistani army will gradually pull out of these areas, which can only help Al Qaeda. 

Meanwhile, 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. Mullah Dadullah, a key Taliban commander, gave an interview to CBS last month in which he outlined how the Taliban and Al Qaeda cooperate: "Osama bin Laden, thank God, is alive and in good health. We are in contact with his top aides and sharing plans and operations with each other." Indeed, the senior American military intelligence official told me that "trying to separate Taliban and Al Qaeda in Pakistan serves no purpose. It's like picking gray hairs out of your head." Suicide attacks, improvised explosive devices, and beheadings of hostages--all techniques Al Qaeda perfected in Iraq--are being employed by the Taliban to strengthen their influence in the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan. Hekmat Karzai, an Afghan security expert, points out that suicide bombings were virtually unknown in Afghanistan until 2005, when there were 21 attacks; last year, there were 118. In May, maverick Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a one-time opponent of the Taliban, declared his allegiance to Al Qaeda. Having reorganized across the border in Pakistan, bin Laden's group is now on the rise in Afghanistan--again.

Nowhere in the West do these developments pose a greater danger than in Great Britain. A British government report published last year explains that Mohammed Siddique Khan, the ringleader of the 2005 London bombings that killed 52 commuters, visited Pakistan on two occasions in 2003 and 2004 and "had some contact with Al Qaeda figures [and] some relevant training in a remote part of Pakistan." Two months after the attacks, Al Jazeera aired a videotape of Khan saying, "I'm going to talk to you in a language that you understand. Our words are dead until we give them life with our blood." The tape bore the distinctive logo of As Sahab ("The Clouds"), the TV production arm of Al Qaeda. Khan's appearance on the As Sahab videotape suggests that he met members of Al Qaeda's media team, who are based on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. On the same tape, Al Qaeda's number two, Ayman Al Zawahiri, directly acknowledged his group's involvement in the London bombings. 

The nexus between Al Qaeda, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United Kingdom is almost certain to generate more attacks. Making a rare public speech last November, Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of Britain's domestic intelligence service, MI5, said, "We are aware of numerous plots to kill people and damage our economy ... 30 that we know of. These plots often have linked back to Al Qaeda in Pakistan, and, through these links, Al Qaeda gives guidance and training to its largely British foot soldiers here on an extensive and growing scale." One such plot involving Al Qaeda was the alleged plan by a group of British-Pakistani citizens to launch an attack in the United Kingdom using 1,300 pounds of fertilizer (reportedly stored in a locker in West London). They were arrested in March 2004 by British police. According to court documents entered in the trial, two of the accused said they worked for Abdul Hadi, a senior leader of Al Qaeda. Also, the British government alleges that several of those arrested had trained at terrorist camps in the tribal areas of Pakistan along the Afghanistan border in 2003. 

The Al Qaeda threat to Britain is not only a domestic problem for the British; it is also a major security headache for the United States. In July 2004, following the arrest in Pakistan of accused Al Qaeda computer expert Mohammed Noor Khan, British police arrested eight men--many of them British citizens--for their alleged involvement in an operation to attack U.S. financial landmarks like the New York Stock Exchange and the IMF headquarters in Washington, D.C. And the alleged plans by a group of British citizens to blow up as many as ten U.S. passenger jets with liquid explosives that was broken up in the United Kingdom last August was a "top down" Al Qaeda operation, I was told by a veteran American counterterrorism official. That analysis was seconded by Lieutenant General Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), who, earlier this month, publicly said the plot was "directed by Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan." 

Al Qaeda's resurgence is being felt elsewhere, too. A violent Algerian organization named the Group for Call and Combat (and known by its French initials, gspc) announced last year that it was placing itself under the Al Qaeda umbrella. In September, gspc leader Abu Musab Abdul Wadud explained that "the organization of Al Qaeda of Jihad is the only organization qualified to gather together the mujahideen." Subsequently, in December, the gspc attacked a group of oil workers employed by a Halliburton subsidiary in Algeria, killing one and injuring nine. Also in December, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, the leading French counterterrorism investigator, told The International Herald Tribune that France had become "the main target" of the gspc and that the risk of attacks had increased recently: "We consider the threat level to be very high. ... What is new is that this organization has formally pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda." 

And then, of course, there is Iraq. Several studies have shown that the suicide attackers in Iraq are largely foreigners, while only a small proportion are Iraqi. In June 2005, the site Institute of Washington found, by tracking both jihadist websites and news reports, that, of the 199 Sunni extremists who had died in Iraq either in suicide attacks or in action against coalition or Iraqi forces, 104 were from Saudi Arabia and only 17 were from Iraq. And the University of Missouri's Mohammed Hafez, in a study of the 101 known suicide bombers in Iraq from March 2003 to February 2006, found that, while 44 were Saudi (and eight were from Italy!), only seven were from Iraq. Most of these foreign suicide attackers are affiliated with Al Qaeda in Iraq, which the DIA judges to be "the largest and most active of the Iraq-based terrorist groups." Meanwhile, a classified U.S. Marine assessment of the situation in Anbar province--obtained by The Washington Post in November 2006--states that Al Qaeda surpasses all other groups "in its ability to control the day-to-day life of the average Sunni" and is an "integral part of the social fabric of western Iraq." No wonder the organization felt emboldened to recently declare an Islamist emirate in Anbar province. 

Yet another indicator of Al Qaeda's renewed vitality lies in its growing propaganda operation. Al Qaeda has long understood that propaganda is one of the keys to its success; as bin Laden explained in a letter to Taliban leader Mullah Omar sometime before the September 11 attacks, as much as "90 percent of the total preparation for the battles" is conducted in the media. As Sahab debuted its first major project on the Internet in the summer of 2001. Since then, As Sahab has continued to release statements from Al Qaeda's leaders--and has significantly increased its output in the last year. IntelCenter, a Virginia-based company that tracks statements by jihadists, calculates that As Sahab produced 58 videotapes in 2006, more than tripling its 2005 output. As Sahab's videos are reasonably polished productions, with English subtitles, animation effects, and studio settings. Its production operation probably does not have a fixed studio location but likely consists of a number of cameramen, as well as editors using programs like Final Cut Pro on laptops. 

The material As Sahab is producing in Afghanistan and Pakistan is not merely talking-head propaganda. On a videotape produced in April 2006, As Sahab documented three separate IED attacks against American convoys in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan. The film is well-shot, first showing militants mixing the explosives for the IEDs and molding them into devices with detonators, then documenting the attacks themselves. After explosions devastate the Humvees, the cameraman continues to film, showing U.S. Army medevac helicopters arriving to evacuate the dead and wounded. 

As Sahab also released more than 20 audiotapes and videotapes by bin Laden and Zawahiri in 2006, neither of whom seem too hassled by the global war on terrorism, given the volume of their output. Bin Laden may not be calling people on a satellite phone to order attacks, but he remains in broad ideological and strategic control of his followers, in some cases using the tapes to issue general direction to militants. For instance, on October 19, 2003, bin Laden called for action against Spain because of its troop presence in Iraq. Six months later, terrorists killed 191 commuters in Madrid. (According to American intelligence officials, it now appears that Al Qaeda had a much greater role in the Madrid attacks than was generally understood in the immediate aftermath of the bombings.) In the spring of 2004, bin Laden offered a truce to European countries willing to pull out of the coalition in Iraq. Almost exactly a year after his truce offer expired, on July 7, 2005, an Al Qaeda-directed cell carried out the bombings on London's transportation system. In December 2004, bin Laden called for attacks on Saudi oil facilities; and, in February 2006, Al Qaeda attacked the Abqaiq plant in Saudi Arabia, arguably the most important oil-production facility in the world. The operation was a failure, but the message was clear: When bin Laden speaks, his followers still listen--and act. 

To be sure, while Al Qaeda is resurgent now, the long term is likely to be a very different story. The organization has several strategic weaknesses that should allow the United States and its allies to eventually gain the upper hand. 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. Al Qaeda lost a great deal of support in Saudi Arabia after its campaign of attacks in 2003 that killed mostly Saudis, and the same effect can be seen in Indonesia, where Jemaah Islamiyah, the local Al Qaeda affiliate, has killed mostly Indonesians in its attacks over the last three years. Popular revulsion also followed Al Qaeda's 2005 attacks against three U.S.-owned hotels in Amman, Jordan, which killed mostly Jordanians. 

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. Even Al Qaeda's leaders are aware of this problem: In a 2005 letter from Zawahiri to Zarqawi, Al Qaeda's number two urged the terrorist leader in Iraq to prepare for U.S. withdrawal from the country by not making the same mistakes as the Taliban, which alienated the masses in Afghanistan. 

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. A 2003 poll conducted in Saudi Arabia, perhaps the world's most conservative Muslim country, makes this abundantly clear: In that survey, 49 percent of Saudis said they admired bin Laden, but only 5 percent wanted to live in a bin Laden-run state. Many Muslims like bin Laden because he "stands up" to the West. That doesn't mean they would actually want to live under the Taliban. 

Al Qaeda's strategic weaknesses have already led to declining support both for bin Laden and for terrorist attacks against civilians in a number of Muslim countries. But, while these long-term weaknesses will damage Al Qaeda over time, they are unlikely to have a significant impact on the group over the next few years because Al Qaeda is drawing energy, support, and new recruits from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan--conflicts that are likely to go on, in one form or another, for quite a while. In a study of 90 insurgencies fought around the world since World War I, Seth Jones of the rand Corporation found that it took an average of 14 years for governments to defeat insurgencies and an average of eleven years for insurgents to topple governments. Either way, we are in for protracted conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq. As a result, even though the group faces long-term problems, Al Qaeda can do plenty of damage in the years to come.

What will that damage look like? Certainly, Al Qaeda will continue its post-September 11 campaign of attacking "soft" Western targets around the world, particularly U.S.-owned hotels and oil facilities important to the U.S. economy, as well as Israeli and Jewish targets outside of Israel. It will also remain a destabilizing force in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. For the moment, Al Qaeda is finding it difficult to attack the United States, thanks to the rejection of its ideology by the American Muslim community and security measures taken by the U.S. government. But all bets are off once the war in Iraq winds down and the foreign fighters there, and some of their Iraqi colleagues, turn their sights on the United States. The resulting blowback from the Iraq war could make the blowback from the Afghan war against the Soviets look like high tea at the Four Seasons. 

There are two tactics that a resurgent Al Qaeda could easily deploy in the next few years that would have significant detrimental effects on U.S. interests. Neither has been successfully used before--but both are well within the organization's capability; unlike the threat of Al Qaeda detonating a nuclear device, they do not represent Chicken Little scenarios. The first such tactic is the use of rocket-propelled grenades or surface-to-air missiles to bring down a commercial jetliner. Al Qaeda already tried such an attack against an Israeli passenger jet in Kenya in 2002. That attempt almost succeeded. If Al Qaeda manages to down a commercial plane anywhere in the world, it would have a devastating impact on both global aviation and tourism. 

The second scenario is the detonation of a radiological bomb, most likely in a European city--which would cause widespread panic by leading many to believe that terrorists had "gone nuclear," even though a radiological bomb is nothing like a nuclear device. In June 2004, a report in New Scientist magazine, based on records from the International Atomic Energy Agency, indicated that the risk of a radiological bomb attack is growing. In 1996, there were eight incidents of smuggling radioactive materials suitable for such a device; in 2003, there were 51 such cases. The dramatic rise in smuggling has coincided with efforts by Al Qaeda to acquire radioactive materials. A dirty-bomb attack in a Western city would kill relatively few people but would engender enormous panic and severely damage global investor confidence. 

Thanks to the safe havens that exist today for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, such attacks are a real possibility. These are not the ideal havens that the organization enjoyed in Sudan or Afghanistan before September 11, but they are sufficient for the group's leaders to run small training facilities and to reorganize--which is exactly what they have done.

Belatedly, American officials are beginning to acknowledge this. Earlier this month, testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Negroponte observed that "Al Qaeda's core elements are resilient," while FBI Director Robert Mueller noted that "the group has been able to rebuild itself and remain viable--finding new staging grounds for attacks." Far from being on the defensive, Al Qaeda is once again on the move. As bin Laden turns 50 this year, he has much to celebrate.