- One of the leading questions of the War on Terrorism
is: How much of the credit al Qaida receives for global terrorism today
is factually based? Rarely has a recent incident escaped being labeled
the work of al Qaida, as shown in the reflex blaming of this group in Kenya
attacks on a tourist hotel, and the Saudi Arabia and Morocco attacks of
the past few weeks. However, al Qaida does not take credit as a rule, and
the group per se has yet to have an exposed hand in any attacks except
possibly 9-11 and attacks on US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In some
cases there may be good reasons for attributing attacks to al Qaida, but
usually this charge is made before the smoke has cleared. Despite such
early reports, the Moroccan government now says that al Qaida was not involved
in the Casablanca attacks.
- The Bush team appears so confident it has a discrete
enemy in al Qaida that it has asked for a $400 billion budget to fight
the War on Terrorism. Recent US government estimates place the number of
al Qaida members in a range of 3,000 to 5,000, which means the budget is
between $130 million and $80 million per terrorist. Those numbers do not
speak well for the efficiency of the War on Terrorism, but Bin Laden must
be pleased with the implied importance of al Qaida. Giving Osama bin Laden
all that credit helps build his organization, while numerous terrorist
groups receive relatively little attention for attacks in their countries.
- Regarding 9-11, al Qaida has been the designated culprit
from the beginning, even though convicting Osama bin Laden of direct involvement
does not look like a prosecutor's dream case. Even the FBI Director has
cast some doubt on the early identification of hijackers. Whatever was
learned from hundreds of "combatants" at Guantanamo does not
appear to have shed much light. Meanwhile, refusal of the White House to
release the Congressional study of 9-11 suggests there is more to this
story than simple evidence of al Qaida guilt. Perhaps the evidence points
to other culprits whose identification would be less convenient or, as
widely assumed, the report points to intelligence and performance flaws
that would not make the administration look good. .
- In the meantime it has become clear that local groups
typically take the leading if not the sole hand in each attack. Even so,
governments of attacked countries appear to like having the al Qaida label
handy, because it clouds the issue of who actually did the work, and it
keeps the governments of countries whose citizens are harmed less exposed
to criticism. Simply put, if al Qaida pulls off an attack, the host government
is a victim and free of criticism, whereas if a local group did the deed,
the host government has a criminal law enforcement and diplomatic as well
as possibly an insurgency problem.
- Most cases do not stand up well under examination, but
the way our media handle terrorist attacks they are seldom in the news
long enough for us to get any real picture of what occurred or who did
it. Bin Laden is said to have been involved in numerous attacks going back
into the 1980s, but evidence of guilt in a case was not obtained until
the August 7, 1998 bombing of American embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam.
The key witness in the Kenya and Tanzania bombings, a Palestinian named
Mohammed Sadiq Odeh, reportedly said that bin Laden has operatives in Saudi
Arabia, Sudan, Egypt, Yemen, Ethiopia and Somalia, as well as in Pakistan
and Afghanistan. Bin Laden affiliated groups are credited with attacks
in most of these countries. Whether Odeh was telling the truth or merely
deflecting guilt > away from himself is unclear, but US authorities
now link al Qaida to attacks on Americans abroad as early as a 1992 attack
on a hotel in Yemen.
- Some confusion arises because bin Laden tends to help
local groups pursue > their own agendas. Moreover, he seems to have
worked so far only with Sunni groups. An early example of this was the
attack by the Egyptian Islamic Group at the Dir Al-Bahri (Queen Hatshepsut)
temple in Upper Egypt. The bombings a few months ago in Bali, Indonesia
may have been al Qaida linked as investigators say, but a long established
Indonesian group (Jemaah Islamiyah) that has carried out other attacks
on Indonesian Christians appears to have done the work.
- Neither the scale nor the execution of the Indonesia
attacks necessarily links them to al Qaida. Rather, the apparent purposes
of the attacks-to promote Islamic separatism, to embarrass the government
or to get its attention to the dire circumstances of many Muslims in Indonesia-link
them to long-standing grievances of Jemaah Islamiyah. This group has peer
groups in Egypt and Pakistan as well as pan-Asian aspirations, hoping to
bring together Islamic groups from Malaysia to the Philippines. That ambition
and those affiliations existed before al Qaida became such front-page news.
- Abu Sayaff, the Philippine Moro group, also is called
an affiliate of al Qaida. However, this group grew out of decades old
grievances the Moros have against leadership and the elites in Manila.
The inability to either separate from the Philippines or to get any real
participatory concessions out of Manila provides an adequate reason for
this group to seek outside affiliations. Al Qaida can capitalize on that
situation as it also can on many parallel situations in the failed and
failing states of Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
- Al Qaida has rich resources to work with in any country
where there is an out-group Islamic minority or where a secular Islamic
government is ignoring or repressing its Islamic fundamentalists. Long-established
groups in Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi
Arabia fit this model, and they generally predate al Qaida. Attacks typically
fit local terrorist agendas and are carried out by local groups. These
groups in turn, at least the real professionals in them, may become recruits
for international attacks that serve the al Qaida agenda, and they may
seek technical or financial assistance from al Qaida in the way such groups
seek help from rogue governments.
- Putting the blame on al Qaida thus misses an important
fact of life about the global terrorism environment. Bin Laden is smart
enough to see that most of the Islamic out groups do not have the resources
to be effective against their governments, but their agendas make them
likely recruits for future attacks. Moreover, since the collapse of the
Soviet Union, such groups have had meager pickings from outside sources
of support. By facilitating attacks by local groups, providing supplemental
resources, maybe even by selecting targets, and certainly providing inspiration,
Bin Laden takes on a role that was credited previously only to terrorism
sponsoring states. He clearly qualifies as, if not the unique example,
then the first significant example of a non-state actor running a global
terrorist network, even though his network involves mainly Sunni Muslim
states of the Middle East. His strategy works because he capitalizes on
local grievances and wherever possible gets the locals to do the work they
want to do anyway.
- Bin Laden alliances with fundamentalists in Sunni countries
put him at odds with leadership of those countries in many cases. Afghanistan
and Sudan were the only ones so far where he was officially welcome, but
that welcome evaporated at least at top levels in Afghanistan with the
fall of the Taliban. Still, his support for the Palestinian cause, his
sponsorship of attacks that at least embarrass secular Islamic governments,
and his > hostility to the West, especially the United States, resonate
with a growing number of Muslims and make it unlikely that he will be roundly
condemned in Muslim societies, even where he may sponsor attacks.
- Being labeled by the United States and other western
governments as the > targeted enemy of the War on Terrorism, and being
touted by the media as public enemy number one are the best possible al
Qaida recruitment posters. Such labels enhance his standing in Islamic
societies. The role carries some burdens in that al Qaida will be charged
with incidents it did not even know about until they happened. But it
has some advantages in that al Qaida is currently the best known and thereby
Bin Laden is the leader of the most important terrorist group in the world.
Bin Laden has taken over from Abu Nidal (now dead) and Carlos the Jackal
(likewise). Both of them found the role perhaps exhilarating for a while,
but on the whole burdensome, and ultimately disabling. One can hope Bin
Laden's experience will be no better.
- While they are in the limelight, however, Bin Laden and
al Qaida are not only the central figures in the War on Terrorism, but
major impediments to its effective conduct. The signs of that are hardly
subtle. There were more than sixty terrorist groups, 36 of them international,
who were active in 2001, but hardly a 2002 news story has mentioned any
group but al Qaida. The link of any group to al Qaida has become a mantra.
Both US officials and media appeared fixated on Bin Laden.
- The effects of that fixation are very damaging to the
War on Terrorism. Any government, such as that of Indonesia, or most recently
Saudi Arabia which faces a terrorist attack that can be attributed to al
Qaida, has cover for going easy on local culprits and not responding to
political dissent, as President Megawati Soukarnosutri has been doing.
Kenya and Tanzania leaders managed to escape major blame for not having
detected the plots or diverted the attacks on US embassies, because those
attacks were immediately blamed on Osama Bin Laden. The same escape hatch
has been left open again for Kenya, because attacks on an Israeli tourist
hotel in Mombassa and an attempted missile attack on an Israeli airliner
have been blamed on al Qaida. This tends to transfer the task of fighting
back to the United States or any others who wish to fight the War on Terrorism.
Al Qaida becomes a convenience for national leaders. The perpetrator
is an outsider; therefore, outsiders can deal with it.
- Also damaging to the War on Terrorism in a perverse way
is the US encouragement to participating states to go after their domestic
groups. Those out-groups, which exist in many more countries than the home
bases of the sixty or so most active terrorist groups, are a major reason
the terrorist groups exist. Created over time by patterns of government
and /or elite, exclusion, repression and neglect, these groups are about
to be repressed even more in the name of the War on Terrorism. Such repression
will increase the desperation of these groups and will enhance al Qaida
opportunities to recruit them as allies. The War on Terrorism thus serves
as an organizing principle for the enemy.
- Knee-jerk blaming of al Qaida also creates a ready-made
zone for false flag events. Any government that chooses to can conduct
a covert operation against a local or foreign enemy, fabricate or plant
evidence of al Qaida involvement, and avoid charges of guilt or at least
muddy the waters. The Israelis appear to have tried this in Gaza, using
the alleged presence of a so-called al Qaida cell to justify continuing
harsh and repressive acts against the Palestinians. However, Palestinians
say the alleged al Qaida cell has been identified as a Mossad plant. Since
Mossad was credited some time ago with creating Hamas to bedevil Arafat's
Fatah group, such tricks should be expected. Whether or not that is true,
the Israeli use of al Qaida to justify months of Israeli Defense Force
excesses in Palestine is at best another crude attempt to disguise Israeli
repression and expulsion of the Palestinians as a war on terrorism.
- The bottom line of this discussion is that in the interest
of assuring a global war on terrorism that seriously engages every government,
there are > two important and in some ways contradictory tasks. One
task is to assure that the local terrorist groups who carry out attacks
are not let off the hook because al Qaida is said to be involved in or
responsible for an attack. Even when a link to al Qaida is clear, the
local groups should be held fully accountable for their actions. If they
are not, then al Qaida has a way of doing real mischief in various countries
without harm to its affiliates. That itself could be a powerful recruitment
- The second task, however, is to assure that governments
who are encouraged and even assisted in going after the terrorists do not
also continue to repress the out-groups. Such repression will generate
more terrorists while perpetuating long-standing patterns of injustice.
In the long run, this task will be much more important than dealing with
the current generation of terrorists. The War on Terrorism cannot be won
without attacking the global issues, the causes that generate new terrorists
and provide the will of most terrorist groups to go on fighting.
- It is essential to remind everyone that Osama Bin Laden
did not invent terrorism. Nor did he invent the patterns of repression
that sustain the 75 or more terrorist groups who threaten global peace.
Thus most of the pattern of international terrorism would exist without
Bin Laden or al Qaida. Enough new terrorists are being generated virtually
every day in Palestine to keep the region perpetually unstable. Osama Bin
Laden brings to the table the will and the ability to help small groups
express their disaffection. His networking is based in ties to Sunni Islamic
dissidents, but his concept has appeal even to terrorist groups who do
not share his Islamic vision. Che Guevara defined this vision for Latinos.
There will be others.
- We should be trying to discredit that appeal. Bin Laden
brands the United States as public enemy number one. By giving him credit
for a growing number of attacks, often without real evidence, we make him
a popular hero for world dissidents. Blaming him for every attack that
occurs serves his purposes.
- Blaming al Qaida does not serve our purposes, unless,
as some critics assert, all our leadership wants out of the deal is a credible,
well-known enemy. If al Qaida did not exist, what would the $400 billion
defense budget for 2004 be about? If there are 100,000 terrorists in all
groups in the world, as some data suggest, we will be spending $4 million
on each one of them to conduct the War on Terrorism.
- What we get for that expenditure is not readily apparent.
Attacks worldwide continue to occur at a more or less constant rate. Unless
the patterns of poverty, injustice, repression and neglect are frontally
attacked by all countries and peoples that will remain the case. Osama
Bin Laden does not need to create terrorists. For his purposes, he only
needs to find them to exploit them and their causes. The Israel Defense
Force has demonstrated conclusively that a large and ruthless military
force is not only unable to prevent terrorism but also regularly provokes
it, while some IDF acts, such as attacks on peace activists, are themselves
terrorism. US forces have had at best temporary effect on the renegades
of all affiliations that virtually control Afghanistan, and the error rate
is high in such unstructured conflict. It is a bit early to tell, but
the rate of international attacks appears to be rising.
- In short, blaming al Qaida may give the country a reason
to pursue the War on Terrorism, but it does not provide an effective response,
one that either prevents, or reduces the number or severity of terrorist
attacks. The defense budget, in effect, goes down the tube. On the other
hand, an > international development budget of defense budget size,
spent on resolving the global issues, could have great effect on reducing
the causes of terrorism and the number of attacks. There appear to be no
winners of the War on Terrorism as now being fought, but everybody would
win by attacking > the causes.
- The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer
of the United States Department of State. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org