Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Economist on Al-Qaeda

John Burgess passes out a weekend reading assignment that can take the next hour or so. This series in The Economist is required reading for anyone claiming to be informed about what has been glibly tagged a Global War on Terror. (It is global but it is more a struggle than a war and has more to do with ideas than actions.)

Some lump together all forms of Islamism as a deadly enemy, akin to fascism and communism. A more accurate analysis, and a better strategy, would be to disaggregate the problems. The rhetoric of the “global war” on terrorism only strengthens global jihad. As the West learns the limits of force, it is Muslims, not foreign soldiers, who will defeat al-Qaeda.

Yet foreigners do still have a role to play in what is, at its core, a violent contest within Islam. A useful move would be to make a greater effort to extinguish some of the fires of radicalism, such as the conflicts over Palestine and Kashmir. But diplomacy, like democracy, is no panacea. Muslim resentment of the West has a complex pathology, dating back to the Spanish reconquista in medieval times; that is hardly something that can be undone. Still, it is worth addressing real grievances. LINK

Grit, determination, an eleventh-hour change of tactics and the Sunni tribal movement helped America to avoid the defeat in Iraq that seemed perilously close less than two years ago. Al-Qaeda is not so much fighting to beat America in Iraq but to survive. Increasingly, say Western officials, foreign fighters now prefer to take themselves to Pakistan.

But counter-terrorism experts worry about the consequences of America’s success. Might Iraq now start exporting seasoned veterans, as Afghanistan did in the 1990s? Optimists say the danger is less acute than many fear, for three reasons. First, many of the foreign jihadists went to Iraq on a one-way ticket: to die as suicide-bombers. Second, governments are more aware of the danger of returning jihadists. And third, Zarqawi’s death seems to have removed the main impetus behind exporting Iraq’s violence. LINK

A Pew Global Attitudes survey last year found that support for Mr bin Laden and suicide-bombings had dropped across a number of Muslim countries. More importantly, even radical ideologues have become critical. Salman al-Oadah, a Saudi sheikh once jailed by the Saudi authorities and admired by Mr bin Laden, last year made a televised appeal for the al-Qaeda leader to change his violent ways.

Another blow was delivered from an Egyptian jail by Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, better known as Dr Fadl, one of al-Qaeda’s founders in 1988 and a former leader of Mr Zawahiri’s movement, al-Jihad. He had developed much of al-Qaeda’s ideology, but at the end of last year he came up with a sweeping revision. “There is nothing that invokes the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property,” he wrote. LINK

These days Pakistan’s tribal belt along the frontier with Afghanistan makes up the world’s most worrying reservoir of jihadists, containing an opaque mixture of Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, Pakistani sectarian extremists, Kashmiri militants and foreign fighters of all colours. Mixed in among them are al-Qaeda’s senior leaders who, in the view of American officials, act as “force multipliers”—a small cadre, perhaps numbering only in the hundreds, who provide technical expertise, training, ideological rigour and sometimes funds.

All have been protected by the honour code of the Pushtun tribes, with whom foreign fighters have forged close relations since the days of the anti-Soviet jihad. Some of the foreigners have taken local wives, and many Pushtun warriors have embraced the ideology of global jihad. LINK [If time is limited, this may be the most significant of chapter of this series. It describes in detail how complicated the picture really is, as opposed to the black and white images most Americans want to believe. Again, folks, this ain't sound bites. It's whole, dense paragrphs. Sorry about that. You gotta read and study if you want to learn.]

The rise of al-Qaeda’s stateless terrorism does not mean that the old state-sponsored variety has disappeared. Libya, which once supported the IRA and other violent causes, may now be co-operating with the West, but Iran, among others, supports both Palestinian militants and Lebanon’s Hizbullah movement. Should Iran redirect Hizbullah towards a global terrorist campaign against the West—for instance, if the country’s nuclear sites were bombed—the effect might be more devastating than any of al-Qaeda’s works. [Pay attention, kids. Bombing Iran hits the tails of many snakes. Their heads are all over the place. 4GW isn't the same as WWII.]

For the moment, though, the most immediate global threat comes from the ungoverned, undergoverned and ungovernable areas of the Muslim world. These include the Afghan-Pakistani border, the parts of Iraq still in turmoil, the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, and swathes of Yemen, Somalia, the western Sahara desert and the chain of islands between Indonesia and the Philippines.

Just as important as any of these is the “virtual caliphate” of cyberspace. The internet binds together the amorphous cloud of jihadist groups, spreads the ideology, weaves together the “single narrative” that Islam is under attack, popularises militant acts and distributes terrorist know-how. Because al-Qaeda is so dispersed, the fight against it has strained an international order still based on sovereign states.

This special report will attempt to answer the impossible question posed in 2003 in a leaked memo from Donald Rumsfeld, then America’s defence secretary: “Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?” LINK

Before I close this post I want to put put up one snip I caught at Josh Landis' place. He listed a string of observations made by one of his commentators whose judgement he respects. The whole list is worth reading, but this one jumped out at me.

14. Returning to the US, I see that the public here is so oblivious to what the rest of the world is doing that it is truly amazing. In terms of energy efficiency every toilet has a water sparing system and every lighting is motion activated to reduce energy costs in every place I went to even in Syria and here we are still refusing to see the train coming down the track full speed ahead at us. The deer in the headlight is an apt description.

The writer is talking about Syria, but the description applies to popular American attitudes regarding just about everything in the world... literally. (Check out #12, for example. That's one man's summary of what we are told equals "winning" in Iraq.)

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