“The Global War on Terror” is out; the “Long War” is in. The change of terms, by no means the last, indicates the West is flummoxed over how to pin down the exact nature of a world conflict six years after its was fanned by the Sept 11 attacks on the United States.
Islamist terror has evolved into a pandemic cropping up in more and more parts of the world. Scotland was the latest unsuspecting target.
The “War on al Qaeda” no longer fits the entire gamut of jihadist branches and tentacles which make up the movement. But the United States and Europe are less than ever willing to pin a precise name to the type of radical Islam they are fighting or even call it “enemy.” Britain, in particular, appears to believe that if the menace is not given an exact name, radical Muslims at home at least can be won round to embracing Western values and harmoniously integrated in the British way of life.
A war against an imperfectly defined foe is doubly hard to win. It leaves security and intelligence services at sea over which objects to target for intelligence-gathering and penetration. This was one of the key discoveries from the attempted bombing attacks in London and Glasgow on June 29 and 30. However bungled in effect, intelligence-wise they were successful in that they caught British and also American counter-terror agencies off guard.
No one expected a series of attacks, however amateurish, to be mounted by al Qaeda’s Ansar al-Islam branch late of Iraq by Islamist physicians and engineered by remote control from Tehran.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 308 of July 6: London Probes Detect Iran’s Hand using al Qaeda).
“Gut feeling” and public vigilance in place of intelligence
The British raised their terror alert level to “critical,” fearing another round of attacks was imminent, without specific information. In the United States, certain key locations were given an extra layer of security – just in case. But after the initial arrests, British security services have been scrambling in the dark to discover the source, place and time of the next attack, without a ray of intelligence light for illumination.
To this day, UK anti-terror agencies have found no solid lead from the July 7, 2005 London transport attacks to the failed attacks two weeks later. Only belatedly did US intelligence link the 1993 bombing of the Twin Towers in New York to the 9/11 catastrophe.
In Washington, top intelligence and law enforcement officials were summoned to the White House Thursday afternoon, July 12, for an updated conference on what is seen as a heightened threat of an al Qaeda summer assault in the United States on the heels of the attacks in the UK.
Homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff admitted to the Chicago Tribune that this expectation was based on “a gut feeling.” He said he was convinced that terrorists are regrouping. “Our edge is technology and the vigilance of the ordinary citizen,” he said.
Interestingly, he did not mention intelligence.
Another US security official said the threat was real even if there are no real specifics.
Intelligence-sharing among the various counter-intelligence agencies in the West has developed substantially over recent years but is still not up to scratch within the United States and between US and foreign services.
The “enemy” – namely al Qaeda and other violent Muslim groups – knows where the gray areas are and uses them for unrestrained activity. Osama bin Laden’s people have access to the knowledge they need and a good grasp of how Western intelligence agencies operate, while his own inner workings are still deep in shadow. No Western counter-terror agency, including the CIA, is known to have effected a single successful penetration of al Qaeda or laid hands on masterminds of major terrorist acts, either before or after the act.
There have been cases in which al Qaeda decided deliberately to throw senior operatives no longer of use to the wolves, such as Khalild Sheik Muhammad who was captured in Karachi.
With these cards stacked against them, some US intelligence experts find it easier to regard al Qaeda’s leadership as degraded to an isolated, inspirational elite which outsources terrorist operations for lack of its own diminishing resources. They diagnose al Qaeda’s ad hoc collaboration with likeminded partners in such places as Iran, Yemen and Pakistan as signs of bin Laden’s weakness and the de-fragmentation of his leadership.
This misconception has led to serious misjudgments.
The Zarqawi menace appreciated too late
The case of Abu Musab al Zarqawi is one example. It explains while American intelligence experts took too long to appreciate his prime importance to al Qaeda in 2003 and 2004 when their relationship evolved. They overrated the rift between Zarqawi and bin Laden’s right hand, Ayman Zawahiri, at a time when the pair worked in tandem under bin Laden to recruit fighters across the Muslim world for jihad against the American army.
Finally, when in mid-2004, Washington finally appreciated the damage Zarqawi’s al Qaeda appointment as Iraq commander had wrought to the US army’s chances of subduing terror in the foreseeable future, it was too late. Al Qaeda was firmly ensconced in most of western and central Iraq and its cauldron was already brewing up the horrendous sectarian-civil war which has engulfed Iraq ever since.
Even now, Bush administration officials argue al Qaeda’s leadership is reduced and decentralized, without explaining its current powerful, coordinated momentum – not only in Iraq, but in Lebanon, North Africa, Gaza, Yemen (See separate article in this issue), Pakistan, the Persian Gulf and many parts of the Far East, while also reaching into Britain and central Europe. The United States is not been ruled out either.
Another blind spot impairing Western intelligence’s counter-terror capabilities is the refusal to conduct a serious comparative study of the various methods of operation employed by al Qaeda, the Palestinians and Iraqi Sunni terrorists in their most hyperactive years between 2000 and 2006.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror and al Qaeda experts, this has never been done. Mainly out of political inhibitions, they are treated separately although there is intense copycatting and cross-fertilization in tactics, techniques and tools for upgrading their methods.
Yasser Arafat’s suicide bombing method of terror from 2000 to 2004 was later copied by al Qaeda and Iraqi Sunni insurgents in Iraq. Before them, he called his campaign against Israel the Al Aqsa Uprising and his bombers martyrs in the cause of jihad. His elevation of Hamas in Gaza planted the seeds and supplied the tactics for superimposing a full-blown Palestinian religious war against the Jewish State over Fatah’s minimalist campaign for statehood alongside Israel.
In June, 2007, the fundamentalist Palestinian group fulfilled the first part of its objective by displacing Mahmoud Abbas‘ Fatah in the Gaza Strip.
Suicide bombing as a copycat tactic
The two jihadist terrorist groups, Hamas and al Qaeda, had picked up Arafat’s legacy and integrated his methods of operation and moved on. The same trend has been interwoven through the evolution of all three Muslim terror movements. It was not detected in time to be cut out by any Western agency and by now may be irreversible.
The Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein not only sent fat checks to the families of the Palestinian suicide bombers, he also studied their methods and adopted them for training the Sunni guerrilla fighters whom his Baath party set up and prepared for the coming US-led invasion of Iraq.
However, just as US military and intelligence planners took no notice of the religious motifs underlying Palestinian violence, so too they ignored explicit warnings from various sources, including Russian president Vladimir Putin, that a Sunni Muslim guerrilla force was lying in wait for the Americans with plans for a vicious and prolonged war.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror experts note that al Qaeda has pursued the same basic strategy in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. Only after local allied forces take over territory does al Qaeda move in to expand its hold and establish another territorial base. In Afghanistan, Taliban took charge first. In Iraq, al Qaeda swung into action only after the Sunni insurgents captured large swathes of the center north and west. And in Palestine, the Hamas takeover of Gaza gave al Qaeda its first solid foothold within striking distance of Israel and Egypt.
In Western countries, al Qaeda uses large Muslim communities for grafting its terrorist structures.
In Lebanon, al Qaeda is now exploiting the contest between Syria and the US-French alliance over control of the country to seize pockets in the north and south and deepen its grip on the country. The pervasive presence in the Palestinian refugee camps of bin Laden’s adherents and an increasing number of Saudi jihadis in Lebanon’s main cities point to al Qaeda’s next quarry.
After six years of fighting al Qaeda, battle lines are emerging. Both combatants are preparing for the long haul with no resolution in sight. It is therefore no wonder that the Long War is a fitting label for the conflict. The Very Long War might be even more apt.