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November 19, 2003
A Taste of Defeatism at the LA Times

LA Times publishes a featured analysis today that reviews al-Qaeda's effectiveness and strategy in the wake of 9/11. Not surprisingly for the LA Times, it focuses on the negative:

"Al Qaeda as an ideology is now stronger than Al Qaeda as an organization," said Mustafa Alani of the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London. "What we are witnessing now is a major shift in Al Qaeda's strategy. I believe it is successful. Now they are not on the defensive. They are on the offensive."

Large-scale terrorist groups never go on the defensive, unless you get them all trapped in a building, SLA-style. By their nature, they operate as distributed networks. This was true even prior to 9/11. It's not as if the entire group arrived in Kenya and Tanzania to bomb our embassies; they operate in cells.

A U.S.-led assault on Al Qaeda has left many of the network's leaders dead, in jail or on the run. Still, counter-terrorism officials have linked Al Qaeda or its followers to a drumbeat of attacks in Russia, Indonesia, India, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and the Philippines, dating back to spring. Intent on maximizing the propaganda impact of its actions, the network has shifted from a single-minded focus on American interests to a broader mix including Jewish and Muslim targets.

Except in Iraq and Afghanistan, al-Qaeda has not mounted a successful attack on American interests anywhere, and several have been thwarted by the US now that it has fully accepted that we are under attack. Note also that the attacks have not been the highly coordinated and expensive attacks of 9/11 -- they have gone back to car bombs against targets of opportunity. This is not to say that these attacks aren't a highly serious problem, of course. They are. But they're not delivering biochemical or nuclear attacks against major metropolitan areas, in the US or elsewhere, which is what they were aiming to do. The US understands the difference:

Al Qaeda has always been relatively decentralized and unstructured. But today it moves faster, inciting attacks that require less time, expertise or high-level supervision, said Matthew Levitt, a former FBI analyst and terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"It was always a network of networks whose inner core would wait patiently for three to five years to carry out spectacular attacks," Levitt said. "What's different today is that it's not clear they can conduct attacks with that kind of command and control. So to maintain relevancy, they gave the go-ahead: Do what you can, where you can, when you can. And they are targeting softer targets more frequently."

This is a natural evolution in the war on terror, and one of the reasons why President Bush warned that it would take years to prosecute. Once command and control was damaged or destroyed, al-Qaeda was going to lose its "big-project" capability, but the individual cells would still exist and be able to do substantial, if uncoordinated, damage with minimal communication from a reduced central authority. Cash flow continues to be attacked, but cash that had already been received by the cells would be difficult to find and confiscate, meaning that cells could continue operations for a period of time before losing their economic ability to go on. The fact that these cells have staged successful, low-risk operations involving what the article calls "Kleenex kamikazes" should not surprise anyone. We may see that for years to come while we dry up financing, although al-Qaeda may do that for us if they keep attacking Saudi civilians during Ramadan.

The resurgent global menace leads critics to assert that the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have boomeranged by scattering Al Qaeda's forces, making them harder to detect, and inspiring like-minded extremists.

"I think it [U.S. strategy] has backfired," said Alani, of the London defense studies institute. "There is no evidence they can cope effectively with these groups."

Backfired? Only if you're suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder, or a typical Baby Boomer for whom instant gratification takes too long, or perhaps a defeatist who believed that the only way to address al-Qaeda was to apologize for offending them with our tall buildings, promise to build no more, and disengage with the world. Can we learn from setbacks and do better? Of course we can. But to pretend that eliminating al-Qaeda's primary sponsors in Afghanistan and Iraq, killing or capturing most of its top leadership, and rendering them incapable of "big-project" missions isn't progress only serves to create defeatism and surrender to terror, and more to the point, doesn't reflect reality.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 19, 2003 6:06 AM

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