The Costs Of Blaming Al Qaida

By Terrell E. Arnold

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 tool.
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:



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