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The enigma of Al Qaeda. Even in death, these unanswered questions remain important

15 September 2008

Al Qaeda is dead, at least as an organization (perhaps it lives at some level as an idea, brand name, or ideology).  Unfortunately we still know neither what is was or how it died.  The answers we choose will affect US defense policy for years or decades.

In December 2005 I asked a question:

  1. Is Al Qaeda a powerful stateless global conspiracy, like SPECTRE in Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories? Or COBRA in the GI Joe comics? A real world comparison would be useful here; unfortunately, there is none.
  2. Or is Al Qaeda like the 19thCentury anarchists, a small number of terrorists with delusions of grandeur?

Despite the millions of words burned in confident guessing, it’s clear that nobody on our side knows the answer to these questions. 

Now Al Qeada has died, apparently just embers remain.  As Prof Juan Cole explains in “On the Seventh Anniversary of September 11: Time to Declare the original al-Qaeda Defeated“:

The original al-Qaedais defeated.  It is a dangerous thing for an analyst to say, because obviously radicalMuslim extremists may at some point set off some more bombs and then everyone will point fingers and say how wrong I was.  So let me be very clear that I do not mean that radical Muslim extremism has ceased to exist or that there will never be another bombing at their hands.

I mean the original al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda as a historical, concrete movement centered on Usama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, with the mujahideen who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s at their core. Al-Qaeda, the 55th Brigade of the Army of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan under the Taliban. That al-Qaeda. The 5,000 fighters and operatives or whatever number they amounted to.

That “original” al-Qaeda has been defeated.

But my questions remain unswered. 

What was Al Qaeda?  Who defeated it?

1.  Was it a powerful organization defeated by the coordinated and combined forces of western and allied police counter-intelligence forces? 

2.  What was the role of special operations forces doing “direct action” hits on Al Qaeda’s leaders?  See this post by Patrick Lang (Colonel, US Army, retired), esp note the comments).

3.  Did Al Qaeda defeat itself?  How important were the many mistakes of strategy and execution made by Al Qaeda’s leaders?  (See Cole’s article for more about this).

4.  What was the potential magnitude of Al Qaeda’s threat?  Perhaps Al Qaeda was never more than a brush fire which would have inevitably burned itself out — that it’s core world view was inherently of limited popularity among Muslims.

I have seen nothing but guesses on these things.  Often quite confident guesses, but still speculation.  Perhaps government experts have non-public information that answers these things, on the basis of which they will forge effective strategies and tactics for the future.  History suggests otherwise.

Reassesing the threat

Are these statements still true (assuming they were ever correct)?

The United States is a nation engaged in what will be a long war. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, our Nation has fought a global war against violent extremists who use terrorism as their weapon of choice, and who seek to destroy our free way of life.
   — Opening lines of DoD’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), “charting the way ahead for the next 20 years as it confronts current and future challenges and continues its transformation for the 21st century.” (February 2006)

United States-led counterterrorism efforts have seriously damaged the leadership of al-Qa’ida and disrupted its operations; however, we judge that al-Qa’ida will continue to pose the greatest threat to the Homeland and US interests abroad by a single terrorist organization. We also assess that the global jihadist movement – which includes al-Qa’ida, affiliated and independent terrorist groups, and emerging networks and cells – is spreading and adapting to counterterrorism efforts. … We assess that the global jihadist movement is decentralized, lacks a coherent global strategy, and is becoming more diffuse. New jihadist networks and cells, with anti-American agendas, are increasingly likely to emerge.
   —
Declassified “key judgments” of the National Intelligence Estimate “Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States” (April 2006)

Al-Qa’ida is and will remain the most serious terrorist threat to the Homeland, as its central leadership continues to plan high-impact plots, while pushing others in extremist Sunni communities to mimic its efforts and to supplement its capabilities. We assess the group has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability … We assess that the spread of radical-especially Salafi-Internet sites, increasingly aggressive anti-US rhetoric and actions, and the growing number of radical, self-generating cells in Western countries indicate that the radical and violent segment of the West’s Muslim population is expanding, including in the United States.
   —
Press Release about the National Intelligence Estimate titled “The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland” (17 July 2007)

The drive to establish friendly governments in the Middle East was largely driven by fears of a global Islamic terrorist threat.  Without that, what is the justification for our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

After failing to convince Americans that China is a clear and present danger, admitting victory over Al Qaeda might leave re-igniting the Cold War as the last hope for survival of our massive defense apparatus.  Perhaps DoDsenior leaders hold daily services praying for Putin’s continued good health.  They have much at stake.

Please share your comments by posting below.  Please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

Other posts about America’s National Security

  1. The Myth of Grand Strategy, 31 January 2006
  2. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy, 1 March 2006
  3. America takes another step towards the “Long War”, 24 July 2007
  4. One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy?, 28 October 2007
  5. America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past, 30 June 2008
  6. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris, 1 July 2008
  7. America’s grand strategy, now in shambles, 2 July 2008
  8. America’s grand strategy, insanity at work, 7 July 2008
  9. Justifying the use of force, a key to success in 4GW, 8 July 2008
  10. A lesson in war-mongering: “Maritime Strategy in an Age of Blood and Belief”, 8 July 2008
  11. Geopolitical analysis need not be war-mongering, 9 July 2008
  12. The world seen through the lens of 4GW (this gives a clearer picture), 10 July 2008
  13. Thoughts on fixing America’s national security apparatus, 11 August 2008

Click here to see a list of all posts about strategy and military theory.

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. Robert Petersen permalink
    15 September 2008 12:13 am

    I agree with Juan Cole in his belief that Al Qaeda was a better-organized version of the Baader-Meinhof gang. With a lot of good luck. Don’t underestimate luck. Even Napoleon once said that he didn’t care if his generals were good, only if they were lucky.

    I didn’t have to have been like that, but without 911 it is hard to imagine a US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the current not-so-covert war in Afghanistan and the terrible drain on the American economy that the GWOT has become. Back in early 2001 president Bush seemed like a hard-nosed realist who would limit the American engagement in the world. How different would the world have been if there never was a 911!

    Perhaps it is too generous, but maybe OBL will one day be remembered as one of the worlds greatest strategists. In the eighties he was among those who defeated the Soviets. In the early 21th Century – with a single strike – he pushed the United States on a path to selfdestruction. Let me add that I certainly hope to be proven wrong. Without the United States the Western World would be in a sorry state.

  2. tulsatime permalink
    15 September 2008 12:41 am

    What was Al Qaeda? I’d say it was a single purpose organization that worked. It was a spark generator that ignited a muti-trillion dollar blaze in the west. OBL wanted to generate a western over-reaction that would lead to it’s downfall. Being the eternal optimist that I am, I’d say it looks like it may take the rest of this phase of civilization down with it.

    Were they defeated? Well, the banner has been crushed and the members burned, chopped and missiled beyond recognition. But the west carries their work forward, bringing technological prowess to the primeval task of witch hunting.

  3. Erasmus permalink
    15 September 2008 1:17 am

    At the beginning, it is good to recall that Al Qaida is the Arabic translation of ‘database’, the one in question being the CIA’s database of Islamic operatives and organisations they used against the Russians in Afghanistan and then later on in Bosnia etc. Now, whether or not it developed into a bona fide, truly independent group is the question FM seems to be raising here, i.e. we really haven’t been told anything definitive. And even after the attacks on USS Cole and suchlike, a CIA station chief (?) knew of OBL’s visit to a kidney treatment facility the day before 9/11 and I have even read rumors that the two met in the clinic. So, one way or another, it appears on the surface at least that even if Al Q is/was a bonafide anti-US operation that it came out of questionable US-funded CIA black ops and retained ties to those roots long after they were branded enemies.

    It is time to get rid of them now, a cynic might say, because we don’t need them any more. We have Russia and Iran as perfectly viable foes; anyone can find them on the map; no need for an amorphous mystery enemy. If this is true, it bodes ill because it sounds like decisions have been made to go ahead into final confrontation mode. I certainly hope this is highly faulty speculation on my part.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Please provide supporting links for translation of al Qaeda as “database”, rather than the conventional translation as “the base.” These are quite different meansing.

  4. Tree Frog permalink
    15 September 2008 3:49 am

    Love the Bond and GI JOE references.

    I don’t see Al Qaeda as being defeated. I see it as a mirror that when hit fragmented into all kinds of nasty and dangerous splinters that are an absolute pain in the butt to clean up. And it’s not the big pieces that jab your foot when walking through the bathroom the next day either.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I like the metaphor of a mirror, but does it accurately reflect the situation? The shards of a mirror were once part of the mirror, but there is little evidence that the organizations now using the “al Qaeda” brand name were ever part of the original al Qaeda. This is more like the use of Kleenex becoming a generic term for facial tissue.

    Al Qaeda attacked the United States. But that does not mean that every organization adopting the name — or having the name assigned to them by US or foreign intelligence services (for their own purposes) — seek to attack the US. In fact, most seen to have purely local concerns.

    Beware the illusions of specificity!

  5. Yours Truly permalink
    15 September 2008 5:14 am

    Erasmus & FM : if my sources are correct, it seems that OBL got his inspiration from some novel by Isaac Asimov.

  6. Celebau permalink
    15 September 2008 8:02 am

    Core Al Qaeda may be effectively dead. It might be said however that it lives on as a kind of meme.

    Seems to also bear some resemblance to a franchise, in that groups or individuals of little or no relation to Core Al Qaeda appear to “set up shop” under the Al Qaeda name.

    It appears to have a degree of cultural “pull” or prestige value in the Islamic world, hence people or groups willingness to associate themselves with the name.

  7. 15 September 2008 11:12 am

    The situation overall reeks of the old scenario where a dog and a cat fight over who is a rat. Let us not forget that all the 9-11 perpetrators came from countries with friendly (and oligarchic) governments, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, neither of which the US has made any effort to overthrow or destabilize or impose ‘democracy’ upon by violence or otherwise.

    The scope and effects of A-Q are very analogous to those of the anarchists of about a century ago. We may recall that such killed at least one American president and started a major war, while having no viable alternative to any extant system, and never achieving any sort of popularity… simply because the mass of people realized that under such, their lives would be worse.

    Similarly, other than the freakish and temporary state of Taliban Afghanistan, which is most analogous to localized, severely diseased cultures such as North Korea or Khmer Rouge Cambodia, their ‘program’ could not take root due to its core repulsiveness. Bin Laden’s vision excludes, for example, all Shiites, and thus a large band of relatively sophisticated Muslims from Iran to Lebanon. They would have no place in his mythical caliphate. There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence that the Sunnis in western Iraq, once exposed to the executions-of-women-in-soccer-stadiums lifestyle, were quite willing to turn on them for a few Yankee dollars.

    Our problems, at this point, stem much more from the political exploitation of 9-11 by right wing American imperialists and Israeli Likudnik fundamentalists to grind other axes. However, given the weak/failed state in artificial Pakistan, the inability to insulate the fundamentalist strain there from Afghanistan and then the greater world, there remains a continued threat that, at some point, still another attack or more than one could occur, leading again to another ill-conceived if not cynical overreaction.

    It still seems to me that biological models based on the concept of ‘contagion’ are the most fruitful approach. However, they have to be more empirical and less ideological than the neoconservative fantasies that have led to our present state.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Biological models are more often mis-used when looking at these things. Most infections are harmelss; most harmful inflections are defeated by the host. Medical interventions are needed for only a tiny fraction, and then usually just to mitigate the symptoms.

    Folks using biological models tend to assume that every insurection is the plague.

  8. Erasmus permalink
    15 September 2008 1:03 pm

    Re: origin of the name “al Qaeda”

    Short answer: ‘database’ is not the translation of ‘Al Qaida’, rather vice versa, the database in question being that of the CIA’s. I am sure it has more than one meaning, though, but that is where it came from originally before Al Qaida was formed as an anti-US group, presuming that is a true story.

    From “The struggle against terrorism cannot be won by military means – The G8 must seize the opportunity to address the wider issues at the root of such atrocities“, Robin Cook, The Guardian, 8 July 2005 — Cook was UK Foreign Secretary 1997-2001. Excerpt:

    “The United Kingdom politician Robin Cook, who served as the United Kingdom Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons described Al-Qaeda as meaning “the database” and a product of western miscalculation. Cook wrote, “Al-Qaida, literally “the database”, was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians.”

    The business about a CIA chap in the clinic I read years ago and could – like anything one reads – be false.

    I shall try to find a link for a fascinating article I read 5 years ago about how the Taliban had a deal with both Clinton and early Bush administrations to hand over OBL but neither would bite (before and after 9.11). It became a big joke in the Taliban administration, apparently.

    I am not pushing a particular theory, here, but do suspect that there are networks within networks so any simplistic black versus white scenario is probably – as is nearly always the case anywhere anytime – off the mark.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Powerful information, from a good source. Thanks for posting this!

  9. Erasmus permalink
    15 September 2008 1:09 pm

    here it is: “How Bush Was Offered Bin Laden and Blew It“, By ALEXANDER COCKBURN and JEFFREY ST. CLAIR, posted at Counterpunch, 1 November 2004 — Excerpt:

    “Up to that time Osama had been living on the outskirts of Kandahar. At some time shortly after the Frankfurt meeting, the Taliban moved Osama and placed him and his retinue under house arrest at Daronta, thirty miles from Kabul.

    In the wake of the 2000 election Mohabbat traveled to Islamabad and met with William Milam, US ambassador to Pakistan and the person designated by the Clinton administration to deal with the Taliban on the fate of bin Laden. Milam told Mohabbat that it was a done deal but that the actual handover of bin Laden would have to be handled by the incoming Bush administration.

    On November 23, 2000, Mohabbat got a call from the NSC saying they wanted to put him officially on the payroll as the US government’s contact man for the Taliban. He agreed. A few weeks later an official from the newly installed Bush NSC asked him to continue in the same role and shortly thereafter he was given a letter from the administration (Mohabbat tells us he has a copy), apologizing to the Taliban for not having dealt with bin Laden, explaining that the new government was still setting in, and asking for a meeting in February 2001.

    The Bush administration sent Mohabbat back, carrying kindred tidings of delay and regret to the Taliban three more times in 2001, the last in September after the 9/11 attack. Each time he was asked to communicate similar regrets about the failure to act on the plan agreed to in Frankfurt. This procrastination became a standing joke with the Taliban, Mohabbat tells CounterPunch “They made an offer to me that if the US didn’t have fuel for the Cruise missiles to attack Osama in Daronta, where he was under house arrest, they would pay for it.”
    .
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    Fabius Maximus replies: “Here is” what? What are you saying with this excerpt?

  10. Erasmus permalink
    15 September 2008 2:27 pm

    FM: ‘here it is’ refers to the link I mentioned I would try to find in previous post. Sorry for any confusion caused.

  11. Erasmus permalink
    15 September 2008 2:32 pm

    What this excerpt infers – to me – is that the reasons for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had nothing to do with Al Qaida which, due to its origins and possible ongoing contacts with USG intelligence service, could well be a straw man. Whether or not this is the case, clearly OBL/Al Qaida is not the causus belli for operations over there as advertised and never was (IF the story in this article is basically accurate which of course one never knows).

    Given current ops in Pakistan, I suspect we will get a newsflash soon telling us that OBL has been blown to smithereens in a cave, no identification possible. That way he is retired a Public Enemy Nr 1. There are plenty of other ones now.

  12. plato's cave permalink
    15 September 2008 2:53 pm

    Erasmus is on the right track! UBL and Al Q’aeda were always US creations, and probably every move they made in Iraq was known in advance or even planned by the CIA, if they were not simply fictions created by the CIA. Now, the question remains, who did actually did 9-11, and who knew about it in advance?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I believe the first part of that is far too strong a statement given the available evidence. The second goes beyond speculation into fantasy.

  13. Thomas permalink
    15 September 2008 11:13 pm

    I might be missing something, but wouldn’t the question of “what was AQ’s intermediate goal” be required to be answered first before the others can be attended to? In other words if AQ’s leadership saw itself as a vanguard group then their goal would be different from a group that desired to be the main force involved rather than just the first.

    If they indeed saw themselves as a vanguard for a Salafist revolution, then their success would be based on if others adopt their ideology and continue the rebellion. As such the survival of the group may not be needed.

    If it wasn’t a vanguard group then continued survival would obviously be necessary.

  14. Yours Truly permalink
    16 September 2008 2:00 am

    Erasmus : thanks for the profile on AQ.

    Celebau : “Borrow a corpse to resurrect the soul.” : 借尸还魂 (jie shi huan hun)

  15. Erasmus permalink
    16 September 2008 11:33 am

    FM: I find 9.11 speculations tedious and always have. It’s a little like the US Rep-Dem thingy: if you are a partisan, then anything a talking head says that you agree with is clearly true, but if you don’t agree with them it is clearly false. The same thing is true in so-called ‘science’, wherein deeply held apriori assumptions about the nature of matter, mind and so forth govern the experimental setups and subsequent conclusions but are not acknowledged as such. Indeed, most apriori assumptions are not acknowledged, just as most of us are not aware of our eyeball as we watch that pretty maiden go by!

    In terms of 911 specifically, I have always been partisan and therefore always seen it a certain way, namely on the day it occurred I was pretty sure it was a false flag attack, probably with Mossad connivance since that is their speciality. This was long before I read Ostrovsky’s books or researched how the US was manipulated into WWI.

    This report that came out in 2002 seemed to confirm my initial suspicions. Proof? No. But proof is a hard thing to find, whether in a laboratory or a court room. One thing for sure: the official ‘approved’ conspiracy theory that 19 religious fanatics, half of whom are still alive, armed with boxcutters and fresh from the brothels of Florida smelling of whisky and women, without any other state government support, is utterly absurd; the fact that the 9/11 commission did not uncover any other links means that whatever the real story is, they did not go there, nor did they even attempt to explain why a building that was not hit (WT7) went down perfectly into its own footprint. One can only speculate as to why that should be. But this cynically absurd story, which assumes the American people have the intelligence of a Saturday morning cartoon hero, has caused me to regard any aspect of the USG as little better than a criminal organisation.

    http://www.physics911.net/germanintel
    This links to a notorious, hard-hitting conspiracy site, TBR whose ‘reports from the White House’ are the closest thing to comedy in the conspiracy world but who also come out with occasional gems, for example the accurate body count in Iraq including those who died of injuries received in theatre but not actually in Iraq, i.e. in Ramstein or Walter Reed etc. (Only those picked up dead in Iraq are included in the official count.)
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    Fabius Maximus replies: The FM comment policy asks that discussion be topical — related to the post (in more than the sense of same planetary origin or common humanity). Theories about 9/11 do not meet this criterion. These are not open discussion threads (there are thousands of those elsewhere). Please follow these more closely in the future; this is a 2nd notice.

    “nor did they even attempt to explain why a building that was not hit (WT7) went down perfectly into its own footprint”

    There has been extensive analysis of this, up to and including the recent National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) report on the collapse of World Trade Center building 7. Result of a 3 year study, it is available here.

  16. Erasmus permalink
    16 September 2008 3:59 pm

    “The FM comment policy asks that discussion be topical — related to the post (in more than the sense of same planetary origin or common humanity). Theories about 9/11 do not meet this criterion.”

    Fair enough. I was responding to your response to #12.

  17. Barry permalink
    16 September 2008 4:52 pm

    To operate as an organisation Bin Laden’s group needed a tacitly sympathetic state sanctuary (eg provisional IRA in Eire), when it lost that it was finished. Even at it’s height itwas never very disciplined or covert, the BBC had broadcast that a London mulla had been advocating flying a highjacked plane into a skyscraper long before 9/11; not very SPECTRE-like of them.

    A Brockenspectre is what Al Qaeda was; the actual thing was orders of magnitude less dangerous than anybody had a right to expect.

  18. plato's cave permalink
    16 September 2008 5:06 pm

    I believe the original post was about al Q’aeda, and the assertion that it is now “dead”. I dont think it’s off-subject to question in what sense al Q’aeda ever existed, who controlled it, and what it actually did. Questions are not “speculation and fantasy.” However, I apologize for dragging up the red herring of 9-11. Bad manners and quite unnecessary!

  19. 22 September 2008 12:33 pm

    What was Al Qaeda? Who defeated it?

    “Reports of my death are greatly exagerated”*
    *Mark Twain, who would have had a field day with this one.

    Who dreams this garbage up ?! The bombing bore the signs of an attack by al Qaeda or an affiliate, a U.S. intelligence official said. Tree frog nailed it,

    “I don’t see Al Qaeda as being defeated. I see it as a mirror that when hit fragmented into all kinds of nasty and dangerous splinters”

    “Truck bomber kills at least 45 at Islamabad hotel

    Sun Sep 21, 12:39 AM
    “The bombing bore the signs of an attack by al Qaeda or an affiliate, a U.S. intelligence official said.”

    Duh ! Ya, think ?
    There’s a promising career in National Intelligence for most on this Blog, as it’s clear the socalled
    pros we rely on are pretty dense.
    .
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Agree, Tree Frog’s describtion seems apt. But dozens, or hundreds – or thousands — of splinters calling themselves “al Qaeda” likely will prove resistent to the governments’ current tools, which work well against a centralized global organization.

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