Friday, January 26, 2007

Branch franchise no more, terror has a head office

Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor- The Australian January 27, 2007 AL-QA'IDA is back. The most dangerous and globally effective terrorist organisation the world has known has staged a quiet but stunning comeback.It is no longer adequate to talk of it as a franchise or an ideological or public relations organisation, or as an inspiration for global terror. It is all of those things but it has re-established itself as a global, operational organisation, with strong logistical, training and operational capabilities and a coherent and intact leadership. Al-Qa'ida has indeed suffered a lot of losses since the seminal terror attacks in the US of September 11, 2001. But as many Western leaders have pointed out, the war on terror is destined to be a long war, a trans-generational struggle. Al-Qa'ida has shown an unexpected organisational resilience and is back in business big time. Australians should understand just what this means for them. Every year since 2001 al-Qa'ida and its affiliates have attempted a big attack on Australia and Australians overseas. Some, such as the Bali bombings of 2002, have killed large numbers of Australians. All of the attacks planned for Australia itself have so far been thwarted. But it is as likely as anything can be that there will be further big attempts against Australia. One day one of them will succeed. All of this is made much more likely by al-Qa'ida's revival. Last week both The Economist and The New Republic ran extensive reports on al-Qa'ida's return. These two well-connected magazines are merely among the first public reflections of what is now a wide consensus among Western intelligence - al-Qa'ida is definitively back. It is not an unmixed picture - al-Qa'ida recently suffered an important reverse in Somalia, and it has suffered further damage in Southeast Asia, but its gains outweigh its losses in the past six months. On a conservative estimate, al-Qa'ida has made significant gains in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, parts of Africa and parts of Europe. It continues to be strong in numerous Middle East locations. Its central leadership, almost certainly located in northern Pakistan or possibly southern Afghanistan, remains secure and effective. The worst news for the West in the war on terror has been the re-emergence of al-Qa'ida in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In mid-2005 Pakistan's dictator, Pervez Musharraf, boasted that al-Qa'ida no longer existed in Pakistan. It was a fraudulent and hollow boast even then. Today, it looks ridiculous. Pakistan remains both the enigma, and the ultimate danger, in the war on terror. In Waziristan and other tribal areas near the Afghan border, the Pakistani army has virtually conceded defeat in its attempt to gain control over its own territory. Instead it has ceded control to tribal leaders and is relying on their agreement to keep al-Qa'ida out of its territory. This has been the single most important factor in al-Qa'ida's global resurgence, for these tribal leaders have a traditionally close relationship with the Taliban, which was itself substantially created by Pakistani intelligence. But, as US al-Qa'ida expert Peter Bergen notes in The New Republic, the Taliban and al-Qa'ida have now virtually merged. Taliban leaders talk openly of taking instruction from al-Qa'ida. As Bergen points out, the al-Qa'ida sanctuaries in Pakistan and Afghanistan today are not as extensive as those they enjoyed in Afghanistan before the US-led invasion. But al-Qa'ida has adapted its tactics and operational methodology to make maximum use of its new freedom of movement. This is having a direct effect on European terrorism and no doubt will eventually play out in Australia. From about 2004 to the first half of 2006, many Western analysts spoke of al-Qa'ida as a franchise movement or an inspiration, rather than a direct organiser of Western terrorism. It now turns out that much of this analysis was at least partly mistaken. Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the 2005 London Tube bombings, went to Pakistan twice, once in 2003 and once in 2004. He received training in bomb-making. Terrorist acts are vastly more likely to succeed if the leaders have had direct training in bomb-making and allied skills. Despite what the proponents of distance learning might tell you, it's much harder to acquire these skills purely on the internet. Similarly, it further transpires that al-Qa'ida itself had a direct hand in the Madrid train bombings in 2004. A substantial number of terrorist recruits in Europe may be home grown but they are, in quite detailed fashion, following al-Qa'ida orders and receiving al-Qa'ida training. Al-Qa'ida training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan are much smaller than they were in Afghanistan when it was ruled by the Taliban. But they are no less effective. They might house 20, or fewer, perhaps a dozen, trainees at a time. As such they are impossible to detect by satellite or other electronic surveillance, but they are every bit as deadly in their consequences. Meanwhile the Taliban is also resurgent in southern Afghanistan and this a fundamental benefit to al-Qa'ida. Again Pakistan's unfathomable ambiguity is at the heart of al-Qa'ida's success. The Pakistani authorities did capture or kill a number of important al-Qa'ida leaders after 9/11. But they never brought in a single significant Taliban leader. They never wholly gave up their investment in the Taliban. But now the Taliban is subservient to al-Qa'ida and sees itself as part of al-Qa'ida organisationally and ideologically. Elsewhere, al-Qa'ida has made profoundly important organisational gains. The Algerian terrorist outfit, the Group for Call and Combat, has recently pledged its complete loyalty to al-Qa'ida. The tremendous confusion, disarray, civil strife and weak governance throughout Africa, with its vast Muslim population, has proved a fertile recruiting ground for al-Qa'ida. It has suffered a big reverse in Somalia. There the highly effective US Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa was critical in enabling the Ethiopians to chase a pro-al-Qa'ida government out of Mogadishu. This small US force relied on, and enabled, a regional ally to achieve a strategic objective and many in the US military believe this could be a model for future operations. But of course no one would contemplate Somalia's future with confidence. At the same time, it is wrong to underestimate al-Qa'ida in Iraq. It is true that the central dynamic of violence in Iraq is sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia. But al-Qa'ida in Iraq remains a key factor within the Sunni community, and is still the main channel for foreign jihadis getting involved in Iraq. A US failure in Iraq would very likely lead to much greater freedom of movement and organisation for al-Qa'ida there. One reverse al-Qa'ida has suffered is that one its deadliest Southeast Asian affiliates, the Abu Sayyaf Group, is under real pressure in the southern Philippines because of the assistance the US (and in some limited fashion Australia) has given to the armed forces of The Philippines. So there are pluses and minuses, but globally, it's a disturbing picture.

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