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Issue Date:  July 29, 2005

More dangerous than al-Qaeda


The recent terrorist attacks in London lend painful support to the position that al-Qaeda has changed dramatically over the past four years.

Peter Bergen, adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, argues that al-Qaeda is best understood as a set of concentric rings. The core is comprised of 200 to 300 members that Osama bin Laden and his closest allies formed in 1989. This segment of al-Qaeda carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. The second ring consists of several thousand men who have received terrorist training in Afghan camps while the third circle includes as many as 120,000 military-trained individuals dispersed throughout Asia and North Africa.

The fourth ring is ill defined and, in all likelihood, the most dangerous component in the al-Qaeda universe. Mr. Bergen believes the 2004 attack on commuter trains in Madrid that left 191 people dead was carried out by a group of Moroccans who unsuccessfully attempted to contact the core, then carried out the attack on their own. In the aftermath of the London bombings, Michael Swetnam, a former CIA agent and chairman of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va., stated: “In the past couple of years, al-Qaeda has been operating as very loosely associated groups. These splinter groups are expected to carry out attacks on their own with the symbolism that was given to them by bin Laden. The command and control of it is usually all at the local level.”

Herein lies the gravest peril to the West as al-Qaeda may be transforming itself from a relatively small, regional organization into an international mass movement “with a nearly unlimited number of potential operatives.”

R.T. Naylor of Canada’s McGill University views al-Qaeda as a label for a loose network of like-minded individuals. While members might pay homage to an “omnipotent mastermind” (bin Laden), lines of communication (to the extent that they exist) are primarily from the rank and file upward as opposed to the top-down configuration of a military unit. Dr. Naylor argues that the notion of bin Laden as supreme ruler of al-Qaeda, the evil genius orchestrating global terrorism with exacting precision, is comforting but patently false.

Al-Qaeda is usually translated as the “base” or “foundation,” words with an organizational connotation. However, this term also means “precept,” “formula,” or “method” suggesting that al-Qaeda is much more than a terrorist group. In Al Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, Jason Burke notes that the radical internationalist ideology of “al-Qaedaism” is a constellation of anti-Western, anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic beliefs.

Mr. Burke believes that few adherents of al-Qaedaism are linked to bin Laden in any meaningful way. The overwhelming number of members follow the precepts of the Saudi-born leader rather than the man himself.

The Bush administration has made three crucial mistakes in dealing with Islamic terrorism. First, exercising the military option against al-Qaeda was and continues to be necessary. However, countering this brand of terrorism via force to the exclusion of dealing with the essence of fanatical anti-Americanism is akin to treating the symptoms of a disease while ignoring the underlying causes of the malady.

Second, invading Iraq dramatically reduced our ability to counter terrorism by way of the significant commitment of time, energy, money and troops expended on that country. Former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, who directed the agency’s anti-bin Laden team in the late 1990s, noted that this conflict diverted the team’s limited number of Arabic speakers and Middle East specialists from the war on al-Qaeda to the hostilities in Iraq. Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst and staunch advocate of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, stated: “My instincts tell me that the Iraq war has hindered the war on terrorism. You had to deal with al-Qaeda first, not Saddam.”

Finally, the deaths of thousands of civilians during U.S. military operations in Iraq have been a propaganda victory of enormous proportion for al-Qaeda. Brian Jenkins, one of the foremost experts on international terrorism, has noted that millions of people do not see a moral distinction between ramming a truck laden with explosives into an embassy and dropping bombs on a city from military aircraft.

Mr. Bergen argues, “What we have done in Iraq is what bin Laden could not have hoped for in his wildest dreams.” Our invasion of an oil-rich Muslim nation gives credence to his claim that America is out to destroy global Islam.

Through an ill-conceived foreign policy, we are providing new recruits to an elusive and highly motivated enemy. In an age of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, what could be more threatening to our well-being than legions of militant zealots who harbor a pathological hatred of this country?

George Bryjak is a professor of sociology at the University of San Diego. He is currently on leave from the university.

National Catholic Reporter, July 29, 2005

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