Al Qaeda’s Global Factory

Indian Express , April 12 , 2004

In the 30 months since President Bush’s declaration of war against global terrorism, the US and its allies have ostensibly detained or killed 70 per cent of Al Qaeda’s senior leaders. But the frequency of terrorist acts worldwide attributed to Al Qaeda has increased, compared to the pre-9/11 period. Baby Al Qaedas are being spawned in new regions of the world and a new generation of terrorists is stepping up to take the place of those killed in Afghanistan or detained in Guantanamo. Is the US under-estimating the enemy and not paying sufficient attention to Al Qaeda again? Or is the war in Iraq, and the grandiose scheme to democratise and reshape the Middle East it represents, distracting the administration from the pursuit of the perpetrators of 9/11?

The State Department’s counter-terrorism coordinator, J. Cofer Black, testified last week before the House Sub-committee on International Terrorism, Non-proliferation and Human Rights. In his testimony, the 28-year veteran of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations listed ‘‘some important successes against the Al Qaeda organisation’’ resulting from the coordination of US efforts with those of its allies. Al Qaeda had been deprived of ‘‘a vital safe haven’’ in Afghanistan, most of its known leadership had been decapitated and it had been ‘‘separated from facilities central to its chem-bio and poisons development programmes.’’

But according to Black, ‘‘a new cadre of leaders’’ and ‘‘relatively untested terrorists’’ has started to emerge. ‘‘Al Qaeda’s ideology is spreading well beyond the Middle East’’ and ‘‘has been picked up by a number of Islamic extremist movements which exist around the globe… Some groups have gravitated to Al Qaeda in recent years, where before such linkages did not exist’’ — something that ‘‘greatly complicates our task in stamping out Al Qaeda.’’

Iraq was described by the State Department’s senior counter-terrorism official as the emerging ‘‘focal point for the foreign Jehadist fighters’’. According to his testimony, ‘‘Jehadists view Iraq as a new training ground to build their extremist credentials and hone the skills of the terrorist’’. In short, the war in Afghanistan struck a severe blow to terrorism but the war in Iraq may have resuscitated them. The US will prevail against terrorism eventually but the problem is with us for the foreseeable future. The administration’s desire to proclaim ‘‘mission accomplished’’ rather quickly might actually have prolonged the war against terrorism.

US politicians and analysts have said much about how the war against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan should have been finished before starting another war in Iraq. But the conduct of the war in Afghanistan itself has been insufficiently scrutinised. The decision to commit fewer troops to the Afghan war and ‘‘outsourcing’’ the hunt on the ground for Al Qaeda to the Northern Alliance and Pakistan probably enabled Al Qaeda operatives to disperse instead of waiting to be destroyed by US bombardment from the air. The only reason the US feels it has destroyed 70 per cent of known Al Qaeda leaders is that its knowledge of Al Qaeda operatives was limited to begin with. Less known veterans of the anti-Soviet jehad started slipping out of Afghanistan soon after the US started bombing Afghanistan on October 7, 2001. Pakistan did not deploy significant numbers of troops along its border with Afghanistan until December 7, giving Al Qaeda trainers almost two months to slip and spread out. These individuals have most likely served as midwives of the baby Al Qaedas the US now confronts from Morocco to Indonesia.

The core assumption of the US strategy in Afghanistan was that terrorists cannot operate without state sponsorship. Once the Taliban regime in Afghanistan had been dislodged, and Al Qaeda’s safe haven destroyed, Osama bin Laden’s organisation was expected to wither away or at least decline in significance as a source of threat. There was little contingency planning for Al Qaeda’s ability to evolve in new ways, operating without state sponsorship in remote parts of insufficiently governed countries. It is true that Al Qaeda no longer has the elaborate training camps it had while the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. But these camps were partly needed to train soldiers for conventional war in defence of Taliban control of Afghan cities. With no cities to protect, Al Qaeda no longer needs conventional military training. Suicide bombers can be easily trained in the caves of south and eastern Afghanistan and Northwestern Pakistan, the jungles of Mindanao in southern Philippines and in basements of homes in the Sunni triangle in Iraq.

Ideological motivation for young men to join its ranks is now more important to Al Qaeda than a state sponsor. That motivation has been provided by the haste to war in Iraq. Officials in several Muslim countries have noted a rise in recruitment to extremist groups and even US officials (including Black) acknowledge that ‘‘there are literally thousands of Jehadists around the world’’. These extremists have added anti-Americanism to their local causes, which in the past only involved local separatist wars in remote parts of the world such as Chechnya and Kashmir.

While Osama bin Laden remains at large in Afghanistan or its border region with Pakistan, far more troops and resources have been committed to Iraq than to Afghanistan. There are only 13,500 US troops in Afghanistan, compared with 150,000 in Iraq. 50 countries promised a total of $8.2 billion in aid to Afghanistan at a donor’s conference in Berlin last week after President Hamid Karzai warned that his country could slip back into being ‘‘a haven for drugs and terrorism.’’

The US has promised to double its aid to Afghanistan, raising it to $2.2 billion over the next two years but that is a drop in the bucket in comparison with US spending in Iraq. Afghanistan has massively resumed harvesting opium and now accounts for 77 per cent of global opium production according to the last annual report of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. 28 out of 32 provinces in Afghanistan now produce the drug crop, up from 18 provinces in 1999. Drug revenues, estimated at $2.3 billion annually (obviously more than US aid commitments) now finance local warlords and terrorists, including some Al Qaeda affiliates and the resurgent Taliban.

The US and its allies have frozen $130 million in terrorist assets worldwide since 9/11 but that figure pales against the readily available drug money that can continue to finance terrorism for years. If terrorist recruitment is up, Al Qaeda has morphed into something different but equally deadly and terrorist financing continues to increase, victory in the war against terrorism is far from imminent.