A number of my colleagues here on counter terrorism blog, among others, have commented on the recent address by Al-Qa’ida’s (AQ) number two, Ayman Al-Zawahiri. Needless to say, the overall response has not been on the favorable side. It is time, past time, actually, since Zawahiri is a self-proclaimed representative of AQ and the Muslim World, to take the examination and commenting a step further and look more closely at AQ itself, in addition to the individual members who have become media darlings.
In addition to all the other memories that came flooding back to those of us who had lived through and/or worked on 9/11 and the aftermath, the seven years since have provided sufficient time to view 2001 through a wider, almost a macro lens. Commentator after commentator has reflected upon the fact that we have not been attacked again in a similar fashion, so there is no need to add to that stack. What has not been seen, though, is a look at the perpetrators - if only for the purpose of stimulating discussion.
September 11, 2001 is “book-ended” today, of course, because of the series of attacks in Mumbai, India. The attacks in India’s financial capital, however, do absolutely nothing to change the preexisting picture of AQ.
We, collectively, tend to focus on the infamous worst-case scenario. We do this for a variety of reasons: As individual citizens, we are dependent on the information that is given to us to evaluate the threat of terrorist attacks; we are not privy to classified information on a routine basis, excepting only that which has been made releasable to the public; our primary information source, the media, operates in a conflicted environment - oscillating between your right to know and the demands of the ‘bottom line” and ratings rankings. We often alternate, therefore, between a drip-by-drip supply of information from our Intelligence Community and trying to drink from the fire hose of often-suspect information from the media.
The passage of time, however, makes the bigger picture clearer and clearer. With respect to the group that has proclaimed itself to be our primary foe, Al-Qa’ida (AQ), the group’s emphasis until now has been on the numbers of its attacks that it has perpetrated today or this week, how many fatwas it has promulgated, where the latest affiliate-wanna-be has popped up, and, of course, the whereabouts of Usama Bin-Laden, the so-called Lion Sheikh. I should say right up front that I believe AQ continues to be a threat, that AQ continues to plan attacks, and that AQ retains a measure of the ability to conduct some attacks in some locales. The question that has been largely missing from the process by which we have adjudged AQ is the one that inevitably is posed to a military officer, a corporate official, or an intelligence officer or diplomat who is proposing a course of action: “So what?”
The truly successful organizations, regardless of their line of work, distinguish between 1) their objectives and 2) the activities they carry out in order to reach those goals. To do otherwise inevitably means that the organization performs activities ad nauseam but produces nothing but a disaster, which results in the organization going out of business. A look at AQ over the years, starting actually before it became AQ, reveals an organization that must trumpet its short-term successes (a car bomb used against a funeral procession; using a mentally retarded bomber) because its longer-term successes are so few and far between. It is Al-Qa’ida, itself, that has proclaimed itself an organization and that comports itself like one: It has rungs on the corporate ladder; it has a media department; it has a finance department; it has regional leaders; it recruits, trains, and deploys its employees; it buys supplies. Its name itself means “The Base.” It is appropriate, therefore, to judge it as an organization, the way that we assess so many other organizations.
It is true that the Afghans defeated the Soviet Union and literally ran them out of Afghanistan. The fact is, though, that it required massive financial aid from both the United States and Saudi Arabia, constant supervision and coaching by the United States, and, of course, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, not the exploits of AQ. The fact that the Soviet Union was literally on its last legs did not help them either.
Mention of the Soviet Union raises the topic of locales nearly worldwide that have been the target of AQ in the past. In some cases, AQ viewed a country as a foe to be attacked. In other cases, AQ’s intent was to use the country as a fund-raising locale or as a friendly safehaven from which to operate. With that in mind, it then raises, inevitably, the ‘So what?’ question - or it should - as part of an accurate assessment of AQ. We should look at the “battlefields” selected by AQ, places where AQ chose to go in order to fight those to whom they refer as “Crusaders.” They were not places where AQ might have felt backed into a corner and in which they, therefore, had to fight a last-ditch battle. That fact should be emphasized over and over. Unlike the self image AQ attempts frequently to portray, AQ is an organization that is sorely in need of new organizational “glasses” with which to assess and choose the “markets” for its “product.” In no case has it been received warmly by the majority of the population. In a number of cases, those whose initial reception was warm and welcoming - the starkest case is the Awakening Councils in Iraq - subsequently became the most effective sworn enemies of AQ.
One possibility for the launching of activities, of course, is that the AQ leadership circle believed that if it began an effort in a large number of countries, the odds were greater that they would succeed in at least a few. Even that has not been the case. Using the publicly proclaimed persona of confidence that is seen on the videos of Usama Bin Laden, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Adam Gadahn, Abu Yahya Al-Libi, and others, AQ’s “batting average” is extremely low.
AQ’s search has been focused on failed or failing states - the Former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Somalia are just a few examples. AQ, itself, has proven to be an abject failure in terms of taking, holding, or ruling any territory.
While living through the previous heyday of International Terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s, the groups seemed almost superhuman, seemingly striking at will. Groups such as the Abu Nidhal Organization (ANO), Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, the German Red Army Faction carried out attack after attack. Notwithstanding their revolutionary rhetoric and their vows to continue until their societies were overthrown, they are gone - dead, aged, in hiding, imprisoned. Using AQ’s own official pronouncements as the yardstick - that it would defeat its foes - the fact is that a group of Egyptian, Libyan, Saudi, Uzbek and other ethnic groups, constantly on the run in the Pakistan-Afghan border region - serve as a prime example, not of success, but rather of organizational failure.