Over the last few years all of us in the Western World have been regularly regaled with dire predictions of another major “Al Qaeda” attack either in Europe or the United States. In 2003 at the Lisbon Security Conference over 400 “experts”, a mix of senior politicians, government officials, and top corporate CEOs came to the conclusion that it was more than likely that an even more devastating terrorist attack than the one on 09/11 would occur either in the US or in Europe by 2004, and this time involving a weapon of mass destruction.
Recently the world celebrated the demise of Osama Bin Laden, killed in a covert Commando operation, brilliantly executed by the American Seal’s team and deep inside Pakistan. Bin Laden was living quietly in a compound right under the noses of the Pakistani Government, and the world yesterday saw Gilani trying to explain this to his own Parliament in Islamabad. Now with Bin Laden dead, and buried at sea, a very wise move by the American Government, as it takes away the inevitable shrine effect had this man been buried normally, and from what I have read he was even granted a Muslim death service befitting his faith. There is no doubt that it took guts on the part of President Obama to authorize such an operation, as its success or its failure hanged in a precarious balance. No matter how carefully planned these operations are always have a 50-50 chance of success or failure as the enemy doesn’t always react as planned. I know this from direct experience.
Now that Bin Laden is dead what next? What about Al- Qaeda?
First of all what is Al-Qaeda? Most people even those who are better informed will describe it as a deadly terrorist organization founded about 15 ago by a wealthy Muslim zealot of Saudi nationality that has developed into a highly skilled and organized military force. In my view, nothing could be further away from the truth, and as far as terrorist go and if compared to other real terrorist groups such as the Vietcong, the IRA (Irish Republican Army), Italy’s Red Brigades, or the ANC in South Africa under a white minority rule, they are messy, out focus in their military objectives and not very strategically minded.
If we look at the word itself “Al-Qaeda” its true meaning comes the Arabic root qaf-ayn-dal. It has multiple meanings and interpretations as it can be translated as a base, a home, a foundation as the one that is under a building or a pedestal that supports a column. It can be translated to describe the lowest, broadest layer of a large cumulonimbus-type cloud. And, interestingly enough it can also be used to describe a precept, a rule, a principle, a maxim, a formula, a method or a model or pattern.
No doubt the word Al-Qaeda was used by the Islamic Radicals in the 80s that flocked from all over the Muslim world to fight the Russians in Afghanistan, and being a common Arabic word it should not be surprising if they used it to identify their bases of operation.
Abdallah Azzam, one of Bin Laden’s early spiritual mentors used the word in a different sense, and in 1987 he wrote:
“Every principle needs a vanguard........................This vanguard constitutes a strong foundation – Al-qaeda al-sulbah – for the expected society.”
There is almost certainly no terrorist organization that really calls itself Al-Qaeda. This term was adopted by the West to give an identity to the enemy. That there are Islamic radicals and terrorists, there is no doubt, that they potentially are a threat to all is a fact, and I am certainly not disputing that at all. What I put into question is their ability to fulfil their strategic aims and their military strategy.
Hence the question how real or perceived is the overall threat they represent?
Since 9/11 we have all been bombarded with expert’s predictions of Al-Qaeda attacks. No doubt that the events of 9/11 shocked us all and even the most seasoned military or intelligence officer tended to set aside logic and react emotionally to the event. I remember that day well, I was in Vienna that day and when I saw those passenger jets fly into the Towers my heart cringed. Now, when I look at the overall operation, its execution and organization there is no point to deny that as far as military operations go, it was brilliantly thought-out and executed. From the military standpoint of the strategists who thought out and organized such an operation, it was a great success and all the military objectives of the operation were reached.
The enemy (Us) was caught by surprise; the psychological effect on the US citizen was immense, as unlike us in Europe, America notwithstanding two World Wars had never been touched so directly by an enemy and the knee-jerk reaction almost immediate: drastic new civilian security measures, new powers to Law enforcement and Federal organizations, the passage of new anti-terrorist legislation, and all this culminating in the invasion of Afghanistan. So looked at from this perspective the operation was a success for the terrorists.
Paradoxically it is the very success of the operation in 9/11 that really constitutes the problem! And raises questions as to the real military ability of the terrorists, as there really was no immediate follow-up to 9/11; there was no consolidation of the advantage gained by the chaos and disarray that the enemy was in after the attack.
Why the planners of 9/11 didn’t follow up the initial advantage gained by the collapse of the Twin Towers? After all whether in the USA or in Europe we live in highly structured urban societies, and they all depend on symmetrical order and as such are very fragile and vulnerable once that order is subverted.
But if we look at their overall strategy, then their military thinking is at best amateurish. The train bombing in Madrid was in 2004, well coordinated and executed and yet as with 9/11 self-defeating, as there was no follow-up; same happened with the 2005 London bombings.
In all three major cases of active terrorism within our midst we have to acknowledge a lack of pure military thinking on the part of the organizers. After all if pulling off such operations is so easy, and if – according to our politicians and so called anti-terrorist experts – these terrorist are so skilled and well trained why did do so much and yet so little?
Nothing is more coordinated and yet fragile as our cities, be it New York, London, Madrid, etc, etc. Why not follow-up attacks like 9/11, Madrid, or London with a logical military follow-up; sniping at people in the streets, employ multiple units of suicide bombers in normally crowded areas (subway stations, airports, shopping centres, etc.), attacking power stations, derailing trains, and exploiting the countless vulnerabilities present in our social structures. After all it would be so easy to exploit them, and yet none of these terrorists ever thought that far. On the contrary they commit spectacular acts of terrorisms and then nothing! They actually allow us (their enemy) to get organized and retaliate. Not really a smart strategy in war or combat as it is when your enemy is at its lowest ebb that you have to finish it.
On the other hand, the political and legal response on the part of our governments has been an almost manic increase in airport security measures, which not only has cost billions but is of little value from a strictly anti-terrorist point of view. Biometric and retina scans, fingerprinting of entire populations, racial profiling with an end and real result that it has made air travel an absolute nightmare. Actually by adopting all these absurd and senseless measures they have rendered most airports less secure than before. The great lines of passengers that have to wait tightly grouped to pass through the X-ray machines, metal detectors, the time wasted by the security personnel in checking for liquids containers create, as it happened with the suicide bombing at Moscow’s airport last year, an ideal target for the terrorist.
Furthermore anyone who is a private pilot, and has a plane on a private airfield, and there are thousands in Europe and the US alone, knows that one can fly with almost no checks of any worth into any private airport. Therefore only an absolute moron would try and smuggle explosives or weapons through mainstream airports.
The political and legal response on our part has been to allow Governments to more and more curtail our individual freedoms, through a series of laws and decrees that allow an almost unchecked liberty to authorities to detain, stop and search, enter our homes using some very “fluidly interpreted” anti-terrorist legislation.
Year after year we hear announcements of possible terrorist attacks in either the US or in Europe, attacks that never materialize; and year after year laws are passed to restrict individual and personal freedoms.
It does make one think!
One possible reasonable explanation is that there are no real terrorists either in the US or Europe, or that at best that they are much disorganized and a bunch of amateurs. And few have the means or the inclination to strike us from abroad, as they too busy killing each other. But this explanation is rarely considered.
If these Al-Qaeda operatives are determined and inventive as we have been led to believe, and with the massive Muslim immigration communities present both in the US and in most European countries, they should be here and now. We have just killed their leader, their much beloved Bin Laden so what are they waiting for to strike back? Even by sending a couple of suicide bombers to blow themselves up in the centre of Paris during the rush hour, would be a tragic but understandable reaction. The fact that nothing as happened, and if they are not here it means that they can’t be as determined and dedicated as the common image painted in our collective minds by our politicians or security experts would suggest.
What’s your opinion on all this?