Democracy and Intelligence – the Two Big Losers in War on Terror
The question asked often in the articles, analyses and programs marking the 5th anniversary of the attacks on New York’s Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington is: Why has al Qaeda never launched another attack in America on the same scale?
There are plenty of answers: a homeland security department was created, intelligence services are better coordinated within the US system and with outside agencies; some even say there are no Muslim terrorists in the United States, or that the numbers of those still at large outside America have been pared down and disabled by the global war on terror.
But the true explanation is to be found in the modus operandi of al Qaeda and its fellow Islamic terrorist organizations, which consists mainly of these elements:
1. The element of time – or patience:
Al Qaeda and its regional jihadist affiliates in the Far East, the Middle East and the Europe-North Africa branch set their clocks according to a time system quite unrelated to that of the US or intelligence – or for that matter any military or terrorist outfit geared to the principle of instantaneous cause and effect.
They have all the time in the world and endless patience, because their operational tempo is dictated by the tenets of their brand of fundamentalist Islam.
It took al Qaeda two years from the planning stage in early 1991until implementation in February 1993 to execute its first attack on the Twin Towers of New York.
Since the targeted buildings were left standing with “only” six people killed and some 1,000 injured, Al Qaeda judged the operation a failure. There and then, its master planners began plotting the next attack, which was finally executed eight years later on Sept. 11, 2001.
Similarly, in 1994-95, al Qaeda operative Ramzi Yousef failed to carry out a plot to hijack 12 airliners taking off from different departure points in Asia and supposed to blow up over American cities. A New York district court sentenced him in 1998 to 240 years solitary confinement.
Yet the plot was not abandoned. Al Qaeda patiently assembly a new scheme and was ready to put it into practice 13 years later. In July 2006, British security authorities discovered a plot to hijack 6-10 American airliners from British airports and explode them over American cities.
What this means is that al Qaeda will keep on trying, however long it takes: time is no object.
2. No clues left at the scene of the crime:
The perfect terrorist crime is a typical feature of al Qaeda’s methods of operation. Its operatives never leave behind clues that might betray the mastermind of any terror plot. Six years after a suicide bomb-boat rammed a gaping hole in the American destroyer, the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden; five years after 9/11; two years after the Madrid rail bombings; and more than a year after the lethal explosions on London trains and a bus, not a single US, European, Middle Eastern or Israeli intelligence service can claim to have a lead to the plotters, the organizers or the individuals who launched the terrorists on their missions of death. The same applies to dozens of smaller attacks. Neither has any counter-terror agency any clear concept of how the mechanism which sets the attacks in motion works. There are plenty of theories, but no solid information – a lacuna which raises two serious problems.
First: It partially explains why al Qaeda has not carried out a large-scale attack inside America. The organization does not lack local cells or the ability to penetrate the United States. In an open society, that poses no difficulty. But al Qaeda’s master-terrorists want to be absolutely sure that their next attack leaves no tracks leading to the level which controls the perpetrators-suicides. That is the sine qua non for Osama bin Laden’s operation and that is the insuperable challenge confronting Western intelligence.
Second: Notwithstanding American intelligence and counter-terror achievements in the war on terror, and the elimination of many high-profile operatives, still somewhere in the world an al Qaeda team or teams are putting together a horrendous terrorist attack for execution in the United States, Europe or Israel, which may take one year, 5 years or twenty to perpetrate.
3. Other American fronts:
American politicians, intelligence experts, researchers and some members of the American public prefer not to classify the vicious war al Qaeda has conducted against US forces in Iraq and the sabotage of White House goals there as a deadly attack on the United States.
But al Qaeda’s leaders see it differently. For two years, Osama bin Laden has staked huge resources in generating violence, misery and untold death in Iraq because he regards this campaign as the ultimate assault on the United States and all it stand for.
It took him a while to decide on this high-stake venture. In the early part of the war from April to July 2003, he pondered deeply the pros and cons of moving Iraq to center-stage of the al Qaeda confrontation with America.
It was a hard decision. It entailed his giving up direct command of his fighting forces on the ground and placing them under the direct command of Johnny-come-lately Abu Musab al Zarqawi, an outsider to the band which founded, fashioned and formed the sinews of al Qaeda.
Bin Laden saw that Zarqawi would need a helping hand to assemble a winning team. In the second half of 2004, he ordered a worldwide recruitment campaign to bring young jihadis for Iraq, exactly as twenty years before, he spent Saudi and CIA funds on raising an army of young Muslim zealots to drive the Red Army out of Afghanistan.
So fixated was bin Laden on the Iraqi front against the US army, that he was prepared to defend Zarqawi and his methods against long-time companions like his No. 2, the Egyptian Jihad Islami leader Ayman Zahahiri.
The al Qaeda leader was not disappointed in his protegee.
After the Americans killed Zarqawi last June, he counted up his achievements as commander of al Qaeda in Iraq with its affiliates, chiefly Ansar al Islam and Ansar Sunna.
Of the 2,165 American soldiers who died in combat from the start of the Iraq war until Sept. 9, 2006, al Qaeda and its affiliates were responsible for about 1,000 deaths.
John Mueller, Professor of Political Science at Ohio State University, pointed out in the Sept-Oct 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs that the number of Americans who were killed after 9/11 by al Qaeda or al Qaeda-like operatives outside Afghanistan and Iraq “is not much higher than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States in a single year, and that the lifetime chance of an American being killed by international terrorism is about one in 80,000 – about the same chance as being killed by a comet or meteor.”
This opinion exemplifies the way most Americans separate the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq where Americans are under constant assault from al Qaeda from their own immediate reality. The main issue here is not the number of casualties but the fact that it took the US Army three years to eliminate Zarqawi, three critical years which finally made the Iraq war unwinnable.
By now, the level and intensity of terror in Iraq are such that the US army is not only incapable of gaining victory but even of curbing the Iraqi insurgency. American forces no longer control large swatches of the country – and that applies even more to the New Iraqi Army.
And shortly before his death, Zarqawi managed to kindle the flames of sectarian civil war. In no time, the religious violence raging between Sunni and Shiite Muslims wiped out the last slim chance of establishing in Baghdad a stable federal regime. In the long term, the Shiite-Sunni dissent will have a far-reaching impact on the internal cohesion of the entire Muslim world.
In sum, it may be said that George W. Bush’s democratic ideal, the fountainhead of his worldview and policy, has not thus far gained the upper hand over al Qaeda’s fundamentalist Islamic- terrorist creed; quite the reverse.
And Iraq’s volatility is irradiating other parts of the Middle East as well. Islamist terrorist movements have learned from the Iraqi model to use democracy and President Bush’s New Middle East vision as leverage to the seats of power in their countries. The ballot box gives their violent, coercive methods the stamp of legitimacy. The Palestinian Hamas is one such example; the Lebanese Hizballah another.
debkafile‘s counter-terror experts predict that in the post-Zarqawi era, his terrorist movement in Iraq will crumble into splinters which will be soaked up by the larger Sunni guerrilla organizations, at which point al Qaeda will fold its tents in Iraq and move on to new fronts. The United States of America will again rise to the top of bin Laden’s targets.
It cannot therefore be said that al Qaeda’s threat to America has faded; the menace rather may come back full circle at some time in the future.