*** This is no way suggests McDonalds (all rights reserved) is a terrorist organization - the "MC-something" makes for great writing. :) MS ***
Canwest News Service
It's a bleak commentary on how this conflict with the al-Qaida terrorism network has been managed that over eight and approaching nine years after the attacks on New York and Washington there is considerable dissent among western intelligence analysts and military leaders about the importance of Osama bin Laden.
Some say killing or capturing bin Laden would be the trigger that leads to the swift collapse of the international terror network he created and the various insurgencies that have spun off from it. (MS: This is totally false.)
This view is suggested by a United States Senate report published in November that looked in detail at the failure to catch bin Laden and the top al- Qaida leaders when U.S. forces led the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
"The failure to finish the job" – that is to neutralize bin Laden – "represents a lost opportunity that forever altered the course of the conflict in Afghanistan and the future of international terrorism," said the report.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, sees bin Laden as a potent symbol whose survival "emboldens al-Qaida. I don't think that we can finally defeat al-Qaida until he is captured or killed," he told a Senate committee last month.
An even firmer picture of bin Laden as the essential, central ingredient for al-Qaida's survival comes from Peter Bergen, an expert on terrorism who interviewed bin Laden in 1997. "Al-Qaida is bin Laden's idea, it is his baby and 9/11 was his operation and it would psychologically be a victory for the civilized world if he was killed or captured," Bergen told the Financial Times newspaper last month. (MS: Not correct. AQ is an idea that uses long-standing Muslim desires for a utopian Islamic state. If OBL goes, another 100 are already waiting to replace him.)
The U.S. attacks with missile-armed drone aircraft in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where bin Laden and the al-Qaida leadership are believed to be hiding, has eliminated a large number of the organization's leaders, Bergen said. "There is nobody who could replace him as head of this network," Bergen said.
I could continue quoting people who believe killing or capturing bin Laden would be the key to defeating this wave of radical Islamic terrorism. But it is far from being a universal view. There is a significant school of thought that argues that Islamic terrorism is no longer a monopoly of al-Qaida core leaders and bin Laden. Indeed, major terrorist attacks may not even be under their control and direction.
David Livingstone, a security expert at Chatham House, Britain's premier think-tank on international affairs, said recently he doesn't believe removing bin Laden from the equation will have much effect because al-Qaida has become a brand name. The al-Qaida product of Islamic terrorism is now so well established it will survive with or without bin Laden.
The most persistent and in many ways the most persuasive proponent of this view is Marc Sageman. Sageman is an interesting man whose qualifications make it clear he is well worth listening to. Sageman has a doctorate in political sociology and is a practising psychiatrist. He served in the U.S. Navy as a flight surgeon and joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1984. In the late 1980s he was based in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, liaising with the Afghan mujahedeen guerrillas fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
In 2004, Sageman produced an important book called Understanding Terrorism, which was based on detailed dissection of the lives of the approximately 400 al- Qaida members then in captivity. It is a book full of fascinating and significant information – for example, that about half the known al-Qaida terrorists attended only 20 mosques worldwide and that most of them were intelligent and privileged middle class young men, not brainwashed, ill- educated cannon fodder.
In his latest book published in 2008, Leaderless Jihad, Sageman argues that al-Qaida is not an organization that can be systematically destroyed, because it has evolved into a social network that has to be disrupted by undermining the relationships that sustain it. This is what he says:
"The present threat has evolved from a structured group of al-Qaida masterminds, controlling vast resources and issuing commands, to a multitude of informal local groups trying to emulate their predecessors by conceiving and executing operations from the bottom up. These homegrown wannabes form a scattered global network, a leaderless jihad."
Sageman argues that al-Qaida has ceased to exist as an organizational entity and that it has been "neutralized operationally." Instead, he says, the main terrorism threat today is from low-level groups that are self-recruiting and have adopted the al-Qaida brand, largely from the Internet.
This analysis, as you can imagine, is at some odds with the official view in Washington. The July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate presented by the director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell is an example. In the publicly released portions of his evidence to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence he said:
"[Al-Qaida] is and will remain the most serious threat to the Homeland, as its central leadership continues to plan high-impact plots, while pushing others in extremist Sunni [Muslim] communities to mimic its efforts and to supplement its capabilities."
More recently in Senate evidence McConnell said that while al-Qaida "has lost many of its senior operational planners of the years, the group's adaptable decision-making process and bench of skilled operatives have enabled it to identify effective replacements."
This characterization of al-Qaida as a resourceful adversary that is highly disciplined and in full control of its network is dramatically different from the amorphous and fluid picture of al-Qaida presented by Sageman and others who view this terror campaign more as a social phenomenon than an evil conspiracy. But such a characterization has few appeals to politicians and administrations that much prefer to be able to draw the threats facing their citizens with clear and distinct lines. The enemy must have a face.
While I do not buy Sageman's arguments entirely, I think that what he has identified is an aspect of the insurgencies and terrorist campaign that is new to the world. The Internet as a source of information, a provider of instant communication and access among both associates and strangers, and a facilitator for the swift construction of global networks has undoubtedly sustained al- Qaida. And it is, of course, deeply ironic that an organization whose proclaimed aim is to gather the Middle East and, given a chance, the rest of the world under a regime of early medieval puritanical theocracy should be relying heavily on 21st century technological wizardry to do it.
Jihadi kit on Web
The full kit for becoming a jihadi is available on the Web. By some estimates there are tens of thousands of sites either aimed at, involving or somehow of benefit to people vulnerable to the call of militant Islam. At the most basic level is propaganda, which feeds and reinforces already well entrenched suspicions among very many Muslim people that the West in the broadest sense is out to destroy them. The pictures of American mistreatment of prisoners amounting to torture from Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad must have been a recruiting sergeant for al-Qaida beyond bin Laden's dreams. If you want to get an idea of what's out there, influencing young Muslims every day, just go to Google Image and type in Abu Ghraib. I'm sure I don't need to warn you, many of the pictures were not printed in western media and are even more troubling than those that were.
The Abu Ghraib pictures are an extreme and lasting example of the kind of material that can and does inflame the passions of susceptible Muslims, especially in this context restless young men unsure of their own identity and purpose. But there's plenty more incitement and it's up there on the Internet on a daily basis. It may be pictures or video of the aftermath of attacks with missiles fired from CIA-operated drone aircraft on houses or villages in Pakistan's tribal border region with Afghanistan. Or the pictures may be of villages in Afghanistan or Iraq, and now Somalia and Yemen after attacks by drones or regular American bomber aircraft. I'm sure the Americans try to be as meticulous as they can be in assessing intelligence information before striking a house where a militant is believed to be staying. But there is no doubt a lot of wives, children and other innocent civilians get killed in these attacks.
Then, of course, there are the pictures and videos from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as Israel responds, often with a heavy hand, to attacks by the followers of Hamas, Fatah or Hezbollah in Lebanon.
This daily diet of pictures of the ruins and the dead reinforces the feeling among some young Muslims that they are powerless against what they see as the hatred of the West and instant death from the skies.
For many young Muslims, even the most angry, that is where the trail ends. Indeed, some try to turn their anger into a positive force to attack the problems within their own societies or to come to grips with the divisions between Islam and West. But some, a few, have the misfortune to be spotted by the lurking recruiters for al-Qaida.
Others are self-recruiting. A good example is the five young American Muslims from West Virginia now under arrest in Pakistan. From sites they found on the Internet they adopted radical Islamic views and decided they wanted to go to fight with the Taliban against their countrymen in Afghanistan. They had some sort of preliminary contact with people in Pakistan claiming to be radicals. But from what we know now, the real radicals were suspicious of them and Pakistani police arrested them soon after their arrival.
But any diligent search of the Web can reveal enough training information on how to be a jihadi, from religious justification of terrorism to making car bombs with ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Most of those thousands of websites useful to the would-be jihadi are in Arabic, but I think of particular interest to us are the Canadian, American, British or other western young men of Muslim heritage who have tried, some successfully, to become terrorists.
Men lured to terrorism
Only this week, for example, we have had the sentencing of some members of the so-called Toronto 18 who planned in 2004 to make massive truck bombs and attack the Canadian Broadcasting Centre, the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service in Toronto.
Their families came from Somalia, Egypt and Jamaica, but to any casual observer they were normal immigrant Canadian kids.
The young men who launched the July 2005 attack on the London Underground subway system were even more acclimatized. They were Britishborn.
In both cases the groups first got involved in radical Muslim online chat rooms, which are watched by fundamentalist Muslim imams for potential recruits. The process of luring these young men towards terrorism is not unlike the way pedophiles lure young girls or boys towards meetings.
In the case of both the Toronto 18 and the London subway bombers there was one main radical Muslim cleric who latched on to them and changed them from being the awkward, unsure and emotional youths, of which we've all had experience, into dedicated killers.
That cleric's name is Anwar al Awlaki and he's an American of Yemeni background. Awlaki was involved with two of the 9/11 hijackers, as well as the Toronto and London groups. There's evidence he radicalized Major Nidal Hasan, the American army psychiatrist who massacred 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood last year, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutalab, the young Nigerian who nearly brought down a Northwest Airlines flight approaching Detroit on Christmas Day.
Awlaki was born in New Mexico 38 years ago, but his family returned to Yemen with him when he was young. He came back to the United States in 1991 to attend Colorado State University, received his master's degree in education at San Diego and later enrolled in a PhD program at George Washington University. Awlaki has been an active Muslim cleric since his postgraduate years when he was an imam at San Diego's Rabat mosque. Then he was a Muslim chaplain at the Hijrah Islamic Centre in Virginia outside Washington. Somewhere along the way he became a radical and turned up on the FBI's radar following the September 11 attacks in 2001. He was interviewed then about his association with two of the hijackers and has been high on the FBI and CIA's lists of persons of interest ever since.
Doubtless fearing pursuers on his trail, in 2002 he moved to London and two years later he returned to Yemen, where he has been ever since, so far as is known.
He has spent some time in prison in Yemen for unspecified crimes and since then he has become more radical and more of a presence on the Internet both on his own Web page and as a blogger. In December, for example, he wrote a blog praising al Shabaab, the militant group linked to al-Qaida in neighbouring Somalia, for the rape and stoning to death of a young woman accused of theft. Al Shabaab, Awlaki said, should take no notice of malicious stories in the western press that the girl was only 13 years old. Well, I can tell you that those stories in the western press were true.
Awlaki has now found his calling as an online preacher of hatred and terrorism. You can find his sermons easily on You-Tube. His value to al-Qaida is that he is, of course, fluent in English, has an undeniable understanding of American and contemporary youth culture, and has an engaging sense of humour. His Facebook page has nearly 5,000 fans.
But like all good salesmen and con artists, Awlaki's most important talent is that he can take very complex ideological and religious thoughts and make them very simple. He has the ability to make impressionable young men believe that slaughtering as many people as possible is not only an affirmative political statement, but is a religious duty. If you look at his YouTube sermons you'll see he has the glib ability to construct verbal fantasy worlds and make his young acolytes believe them.
And once he has cast his spell over his targets it seems that he constantly reinforces the indoctrination. We know, for example, that he kept buttressing the resolve of the two 9/11 hijackers he knew right up to the moment they set out on their mission.
Killer praised as a hero
The same happened with Hasan at Fort Hood with whom Awlaki kept up an e-mail correspondence intended to sustain the major's resolve. Among those 21 e-mails are several instances of Hasan asking for religious validation for what he was about to do, and Awlaki replied with comforting interpretations of Islam.
Soon after the attack Awlaki praised Hasan as a hero. On his website he reacted angrily to condemnation of Hasan by U.S. Muslim groups such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Islamic Society of North America. Their rejection of Hasan's killings was, he said, treason against the Muslim community.
It was also, of course, a significant political blow at Awlaki, which soiled his reputation among American Muslims. Manipulating Abdulmutalab and sending him off as a plane bomber seems, by some perverted logic, to have been an attempt to re-establish Awlaki's reputation as the indispensable mentor for English-speaking would-be jihadis.
And by late December last year Awlaki had a personal reason for wanting to down an American airliner. Shortly before the attempted Christmas Day attack, an American drone made a missile attack on a compound in Yemen where several local al-Qaida leaders, including Awlaki, were believed to be staying. It seems Awlaki missed retribution that time, but I suspect he is a man with a very short life expectancy. Indeed, he seems to have been a target of another air attack in Yemen earlier this week.
But we need to constantly remind ourselves that Awlaki, bin Laden and al- Qaida are not superhuman evil geniuses. Far from it. Bin Laden's objective was to inspire and lead a spreading revolution that would recreate the old Middle Eastern caliphate, bringing Muslim people under the administration of a state governed by purist and puritan Shariah law. Instead, 12 years after bin Laden began his campaign with the truck bombing of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, and a decade after his followup attack on the USS Cole while it was anchored in Aden Port in Yemen, he and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, are hiding out somewhere along the Pakistan border with Afghanistan. Or they might be in Pakistani-occupied Kashmir, or perhaps Somalia or even bin Laden's ancestral homeland of Yemen.
At any rate, they have only a few dozen hard core supporters left with them and the worldwide army of true believers is no more than a few thousand. Al- Qaida in Iraq, which once had the U.S. military tied up in knots, has ceased to exist. Bin Laden's relations with the Taliban on the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier are far from secure. He has achieved no sound political base as has been done by the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon and even Hamas in Gaza. Indeed, all the indications are that more and more of the world's 112 billion Muslims are increasingly disgusted by his strategy of murdering civilians of any race, creed or religion, as well as with his puritanical and brutal interpretations of Islam.
That said, al-Qaida is not yet defeated and it or its adherents – self- recruited from the Internet or otherwise -will doubtless be a danger for some years to come.
But I always think one is approaching a breaking point of some kind when history starts getting played as farce.
And with al-Qaida, we are now in the realms of Monty Python. For even among the most troubled and impressionable would-be jihadis there must be a very limited supply of young men willing to believe there will be 47 virgins waiting in Paradise for a willing martyr who goes into battle armed only with a pair of exploding underpants.