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Al-Qaeda: Not so decentralized and a lot of it in Iran

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For quite some time now, the analysis du jour among many terrorism experts (though not these guys or her, all of whom know far better) have been pushing the idea that al-Qaeda has been so broken up that the surviving leadership, wherever it is, doesn't pose that much of a threat to the United States since they figure what we're fighting is a social movement rather than an organization. This conception has been reasonably attractive to a rather disparate group of administration officials looking to point to signs of progress in the war on terrorism, the State Department (as it emphasizes State's traditional areas as a means of fighting the movement), and many now-former intelligence officials and experts eager to rail against the administration for having invaded on Iraq on the grounds that they were fighting using an outdated paradigm of measuring their success in terms of who they've taken out inside the organization rather than recognizing the danger they'd created by inflaming the Angry Arab Street™.

Too bad this impressive array of adherents to such Burkean analysis were all in for a swift dose of reality.

As the Post summarizes:

The back-to-back nature of the deadly attacks in Egypt and London, as well as similarities in the methods used, suggests that the al Qaeda leadership may have given the orders for both operations and is a clear sign that Osama bin Laden and his deputies remain in control of the network, according to interviews with counterterrorism analysts and government officials in Europe and the Middle East ...

But intelligence officials and terrorist experts said they suspect that bin Laden or his lieutenants may have sponsored both operations from afar, as well as other explosions that have killed hundreds of people in Spain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Morocco since 2002. The hallmarks in each case: multiple bombings aimed at unguarded, civilian targets that are designed to scare Westerners and rattle the economy.

The officials and analysts also said the recent attacks indicate that the nerve center of the original al Qaeda network remains alive and well, despite the fact that many leaders have been killed or captured since the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings in the United States. Bin Laden may be in hiding, the officials and analysts said, and much is still unknown about the network. But they added that his organization remains fully capable of orchestrating attacks worldwide by recruiting local groups to do its bidding.

And Gunaratna predicted all of this on pages 233-238 of the 2002 edition of his book for those of us who were paying attention.

I suspect that one could add more than a few attacks onto that list, but the point is that all of these sophisticated, well-planned terrorist attack do not just emerge via spontaneous generation. Nor are these simply the reactionary by-products of Muslim rage over Iraq as some have sought to paint them out as - like I said, these groups do not just appear out of thin air. The London bombers may well have been pissed over Iraq, but they would never have exploded if not for all the help from the Lashkar-e-Taiba infrastructure and training facilities that exist throughout Pakistan. TATP might well be easy to make, but somebody still taught the Leeds cell how to do it and convinced them that there'd be seventy virgins waiting for them if they killed a few dozen Britons. Most of all, somebody, in this case Haroon Rashid Aswat and his superiors, was giving the Leeds cell guidance and direction as far as what it was they blew up.

That, Professor Pape, is the reason why more than 50 Britons are now dead, far more so than any angry notions that Tanweer and his contemporaries had about the US occupation of Iraq.

And, proving that even a broken clock is right twice a day, Prince Turki gets it:

"All of these groups maintain a link of sort with bin Laden, either through Internet Web sites, or through messengers, or by going to the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan and maybe not necessarily meeting with bin Laden himself, but with his people.

"Since September 11, these people have continued to operate," he said, speaking at his residence here, where he has been serving as ambassador to Britain. "They are on the run, but they still act with impunity. They can produce their material and get it to the media, it seems, anytime they like. Along with that, of course, are the orders they give to their operatives, wherever they may be."

The State Department, sadly, doesn't:

In April, for example, the State Department concluded in its annual report on terrorist activity around the world that al Qaeda had been supplanted as the most worrisome threat by unaffiliated local groups of Islamic radicals acting on their own, without help from bin Laden or his aides. The pattern of attacks in 2004, the report stated, illustrates "what many analysts believe is a new phase of the global war on terrorism, one in which local groups inspired by al Qaeda organize and carry out attacks with little or no support or direction from al Qaeda itself."

Yep, just like all those communist groups in Europe and Latin America were just "inspired" by the USSR, right? Funny how all of them just happened to die out when the Kremlin stopped having a hammer and a sickle over it, isn't it?

Some regional Islamic radical groups function independently of al Qaeda but enter into mutual alliances for specific operations or campaigns, experts say. In Iraq, for instance, one of the primary networks of insurgents fighting the U.S. military is led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who has pledged his loyalty to bin Laden and acts publicly on behalf of al Qaeda but has developed his own organization.

That's what's known in the trade as a "franchise." Zarqawi runs the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda, while Haroon headed up a subset of it in Pakistan. Whoever pulled off the Sharm el-Sheikh bombings is involved with an Egyptian wing and so on all the way up to bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. Bin Laden's goal, at which he has largely succeeded, has always been to create "an organization of organizations" stretching across the entire Islamic world at his beck and call. Having separate if overlapping organizations also insulates both bin Laden and Zarqawi from putting all their eggs in one basket and means that either of them can continue to function even if the other is neutralized.

But intelligence officials and analysts from European and Arab countries say there is increasing evidence that several of the deadliest bombings against civilian targets in recent years can be traced back to suspected mid-level al Qaeda operatives acting on behalf of bin Laden and the network's leadership. In some cases, counterterrorism investigators have concluded that bin Laden or his emissaries set plans in motion to launch attacks and then left it up to local networks or cells to take care of the details.

I suspect that if you go back to the less deadlier attacks you'll find them there too, though perhaps not in as active a role.

"The rather well-formed structure that they had prior to 9/11 does seem to be degraded," said a senior British counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But there is still a fairly potent, if diffuse network out there that still aspires to make decisions. We should be very wary about writing them off."

Unfortunately, it seems that quite a few people did, claiming that the actual al-Qaeda leadership was a spent and degraded force with little if any capacity to mount major attacks. The explosions in the UK and Sharm el-Sheikh seem to have rattled the punditocracy free of that particular fallacy, at least until the obligatory short attention span starts kicking in.

Saudi officials said the interrogation of terrorism suspects in that country, as well as intercepted electronic communications, show that bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, dispatched cell organizers to Saudi Arabia in 2002 and weighed in on basic strategic decisions made by the local al Qaeda affiliate. The al Qaeda leadership also gave direct orders to attack specific targets in the kingdom, Saudi officials said.

Saudi Arabia is rather near and dear to Osama's heart since he plans on ruling it in the coming Caliphate, so it makes sense that he would want to micro-manage there. The mention of electronic intercepts is quite interesting and just adds more credibility to Goss's views that we know or at least have a pretty good idea where he and al-Zawahiri are hiding.

The rest of the article then proceeds to trace back the ties between the al-Qaeda leadership and the bombings in Riyadh, Casablanca, and Madrid as well as being quite fairly critical of Pakistan for allowing its jihadi infrastructure to continue operating with a wink and a nod, but it misses the broader point that I suspect very few in Washington want to talk about.

We already know where a sizeable chunk of the leadership is.

The story from NBC Investigative Unit linked above ended on this bizarre note:

Most recently, there are reports in Iranian newspapers of the investigation proceeding and a comment by Saif a-Adel, the former military commander, in al-Quds, a radical London-based newspaper. Accompanying an article in which he praises Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, was a note saying that al-Adel had “a lot of free time” to write.

That, say U.S. officials, is a good thing.

From the looks of what's happened in London and Sharm el-Sheikh, al-Adel's been doing a bit more than writing poetry in his spare time. For those who aren't already aware, he became al-Qaeda's military chief following the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and (among other things) is a former Egyptian special forces colonel and was one of the commanders on the ground fighting US troops in Somalia. As even Prince Turki seems to understand this much judging from his comments earlier in the article, which goes back to the same question that Radio Free Europe asked awhile back.

What is the al-Qaeda Management doing in Iran?

What, indeed.

1 TrackBack

Tracked: July 24, 2005 8:38 PM
Al-Qaeda's summer offensive from Secular Blasphemy
Excerpt: The naive image of al-Qaeda as a worldwide spider's web of terrorists, where every atrocity follows direct, detailed orders passed down from Bin Laden's secret cave, has taken a beating lately.

13 Comments

Though I'm alway open to correction and education by those who know more, and to the hard lessons of new experience, I think of what we're fighting as a fungus not a fortress.

A fortress is highly organised, highly structured. A great fortress like the better medieval castles is designed for the different parts to function independently though with mutual support. Take this tower, and still have to take that one while being under fire from all the others. Take all those and there's still the inner keep. It is to a limited extent more than the sum of its parts.

But ultimately it's a total, and you persistently subtract from it, and it falls and that's that. National Socialism was avowedly a mighty fortress. It was tough, tough, tough, but ultimately we broke it and that was that.

With a fungus, most of the organism is always below the surface, mingled with rotting vegetation and dirt.

Obvious structures (mushrooms) sprout up where conditions are favourable. They're not that tough, you can mow them down - if you have the means, the will, permission and so on. And if they're poisonous mushrooms, a threat to children and animals that may swallow them, of course you should. (The British model of observing and doing nothing is not looking good at this point.)

But that doesn't mean you will ever smash the gates, burst into the keep, run through the lord of evil and declare victory.

The true enemy in the fungus model is the seemingly unengaged, unconnected mass of rot below. The less of that, the better, whether it seems to be doing something or not.

Of course, when you're dealing with human beings, the only possible means of reaching for "less" are humane and ultimately benevolent ones - spreading democracy, whisky, sexy, and reducing the cost of opting out. (Unless you give people the power to opt out of being part of the superficially passive mass that actually supports jihad, I think everything else you do is futile in the long run.) As George W. Bush says: we have to spread freedom.

When you map big jihad actions, it looks to me that they happen where they can happen, where favourable populations are (give or take some plane tickets). It doesn't look like strategic direction or concentration of effort is an issue.

Sure, there's more action where something that excites jihadis and is readily accessible to them is going on, but strategy requires focus, and focus requires saying no. When does what we're up against say "No!" to jihad actions, whether ethnic and racial cleansing, terror spectaculars or anything else? Never as far as I can see. I can't even see that we're fighting against something that is striving for the power to say "No!" to counter-productive terror.

Dan Darling: " I suspect that one could add more than a few attacks onto that list, but the point is that all of these sophisticated, well-planned terrorist attack do not just emerge via spontaneous generation."

OK, I can see there's a lot of swapping of skills, jihad indoctrination and the abundant resources provided by oil wealth. Above the surface each mushroom, each terror organisation looks distinct (and an essentially simple policing matter), but consider the inextricably mingled constituents of the ummah below and it's a different model.

Dan Darling: "Too bad this impressive array of adherents to such Burkean analysis were all in for a swift dose of reality."

I'll be very interested, as time and terror go on, if you can keep brightly highlighting the things you believe show that what we're fighting is a franchise - your good term - not a fungus. It'll make it easier to see whether or when we reach the point where the new evidence for the franchise model should really be considered decisive. Thank you.

"Too bad this impressive array of adherents to such Burkean analysis were all in for a swift dose of reality."

Well, I wouldn't be too fast to score one for the reality-based community. I subscribe to the mainstream liberal Democratic magazine "The American Prospect," and editor Robert Kuttner has some ways to go before agreeing with your analysis in any meaningful way. This month's Out-Of-Iraq lead editorial (only a teaser available online) gets all the prior details wrong, so I'm sure he can explain away the latest attacks and NBC's 'revalations' about al-Qaeda and the IRGC as well.

OK, they are in Iran, now, how do we get them out?

Dan: Please consider the posibility that Bin Laden is not the true head of A-Q or the future Caliph. What if it were a Saudi "Prince" for whom OBL is acting as Emir?

Dan may be right, or he may be wrong. But conclusive evidence either way? We lack that - at least in the public domain - in spades.

The fact that there were two terrorist attacks close together does not logically require that these attacks were centrally planned and ordered.

Indeed, the very pattern suggested in the article is one of greater decentralization. Sending "emissaries" to suggest attacks and then leaving it to up local groups to autonomously plan attacks suggests exactly what the "dencentralization" advocates believe: that we are looking at connected but operationally autonomous cells.

Finally, the nature of the evidence points out how difficult this guessing game is: in either a decentralized, franchised model ora centralized model we would expect to see actors with ties to the core al-Q leadership operating between autonomous cells.

So don't jump to conclusions.

Dan Nexon:

The emissary/decentralization model you suggest is a great deal different than the idea that all of these attacks are simply "inspired" by al-Qaeda as has been the analysis du jour of late.

Anarchists throwing bombs, shooting McKinley. I wonder how that era of terror compares statistically to ours.
Tuchman's "The Proud Tower" describes Europe before WW 1 at a height of power and culture, with 'too much economic interconnectedness' to allow an all out war, beset by anarchists.

Dan, fair enough. But the "movement" position - which I've been championing - need not be placed so much at odds with the "centralized" model; the key, as I suggest, is that we would see broadly similar patterns of inter-movement connectivity. The question becomes how much that connectivity represents operational centralization and how much of it is an artifact of "small world" features of the al-Qaeda movement.

If this made any sense :-), I'd say the jury is still out. I actually think the decentralized model may be, in the long-term, more dangerous. If al-Qaeda hasn't significantly mutated after Afghanistan, that implies that it remains vulnerable to decapitation and that it is not as likely to adapt if it is successfully decapitated.

If al qaeda still in centralised and if it gets protection in Iran, what should we think of the recent opening of the government of Irak towards Iran? The last thing we need, i think, is an Iraqi government which is pro-Iranian. The Americans should make clear that coöperating with the current Iranian regime is the same as supporting terrorism.

Dan Nexon:

I'll agree that's quite a reasonable model to hold to and if people were framing it in that context I wouldn't have a problem. I'll expand on this in another post in a few hours.

Tuchman's "The Proud Tower" describes Europe before WW 1 at a height of power and culture, with 'too much economic interconnectedness' to allow an all out war, beset by anarchists.

This topic has become almost an obsession with me. I constantly research the structure, the history, anything related I can find on Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Fundimentalists. That is the only way to defeat this world wide plague. I am not nearly as articulate as everyone else here so big words and aside and minus savvy political acronyms and expressions I would like to add my two cents!

First off everything I have ucovered says bin Laden wants an over all structure with individual mini structures below. He wants the left hand to not know the right hand, the pinky seperated from the index finger. This protects the "cause."

Bin Laden, the Iranian counter part, and Arabic leaders from literally all over the world have been meeting in conferences for over twenty years to build up their organization. Bin Laden himself is a "mastermind" at hiding funding and setting up worldwide dummy accounts and funneling money therough Charities, Mosques, legitimate bussinesses [manry right here in the US of A] literally all over the world. He also used and uses his vast fortune to support "the cause."

Out of these meetings, plans of operation were put into place. One group goes to an area to be attacked and gathers the intel and sets up a safe house where this information is available for the next group. The next group comes in and determines from the intel what is needed in the form of weaponry, vehicles, bomb material and prepares all these items. They frequently move everything to a new safe house and then leave. Then the next group comes in and awaits the order if it is not already given to implement the bombing or attack. NONE of these groups know each other or have contact with each other.

Many of their attacks are planned years in advance. Often the targets and dates and time are dictated from Iran. They also have another plan of action for taking over a region. They go into areas where there is poverty and despotic rule. They set up hospitals, charities, and Mosques. They give "free?" food, clothing and medical treatment to these local people. They begin to teach them their doctrine. They begin to recuit. At this point one of several things occur, the locals begin to support their cause or they are given incentives to support the cause. Freely given is no longer free, your family is killed, whatever it takes. The bottom line is they are now entrenched. At this level there is another method of attack set in place much like in Iraq. However, given a choice of starvation for one's children and family, there isn't usually much dissent.

In countries such as the US, sleepers come here. They set up homes in middle class or up scale areas. Blend in, shave their beards and cut their hair. They become "pillars" of the community and are even told they may not attend the Mosque and prayers as that would draw attention to them, Alla understands and allows this. They may even marry infidels and have children if it helps them accomplishes their goal. Then they wait for their orders to become active.

Their goals is nothing less than a new Muslim Nation worldwide at all costs. No amount of time, effort, cost, whether in lives or monies, will deter their goals. Their plans also involve using local governments' laws, custioms, MSM, organizations, such as the ACLU, religious rights protections, and charitable facilities' protective laws to infiltrate a country, break down its economy, morale, and support of its people for that given government. In other words they plan to use the basic principles that these governments are based on the destroy them from within. And the big one, FEAR!

Al-Qaeda is far from losing power. They are meerly adapting and biding their time. They are counting on countries like Germany and France, and Russia to balk at cooperating with the Coalition forces. Experts at propaganda and spreading fear and dissent they consider this as much an effective weapon as anything else. They also use the fact that most countries have very few people who can translate their language much less speak it. Their Muslim leaders in coalition countries frequently speak out in English publically and in their papers about these "atrocities" while their Arabic" version says just the opposite. A newsman recently translated the Arabic version of one of these speeches and published what was left out of the English or home Country version.

In closing I would like to share four of the many books I have read. I cannot imagine why no mention is ever made of these books.

Must reads about terrorism

1.] "Bin Laden, The Man Who Declared War on America", by Yossef Bodansky

2.] "Jihad, The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia", by Ahmed Rashid

3.] "Taliban" by Ahmed Rashid

4.] "American Jihad, The Terrorists Living Among Us", by Steven Emerson

These are but four of many well written books with substantial references to check out their facts or suppositions. But I think they are right on target. They do not sugar coat anything, including things our government has done in the past that has backfired and helped these fanatics rise to power. But, we were not alone.

One final thought, Democracy is one stop gap, but as far as how these immigrants were assimilated or not, take a look at how the Dutch treated them and the out come.
This really is a world war that can only be won by the rest of the world working together, getting rid of Kofi Annan, and revamping the UN or replacing the UN. As far as what else, well I'd suggest the rest of the world pray it isn't too late!

I have only recently found your website and must say I am really enjoying the variety of opinion and ideas. This troubled world is never dull and to read the different takes on it all fascinates me. Troubled we are, messy we are but never dull or boring. Cheers.

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