Sunday, September 24, 2006

How the United States Can Defeat Al Qaeda

The current issue of International Security includes an absolutely indispensible piece by Audrey Kurth Cronin on how to defeat al Qaeda.

Entitled "
How al-Qaida Ends: The Decline and Demise of Terrorist Groups," Cronin notes that terrorist organizations historically have declined or collapsed when (1) the group's leader has been captured or killed, (2) a new generation of leaders has failed emerge after the first generation's fall, (3) the group's cause has been achieved, (4) the group turns into a legitimate political actor, (5) popular support evaporates, (6) military repression is successful, or (7) the group transitions out of terrorism to either criminality or insurgency.

Cronin argues that in the case of al Qaeda, decapitation of the leadership -- for example, with the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden -- will not defeat the organization. She also raises an interesting point regarding al Qaeda's transition away from a first-generation, hierarchical organization to a new complex transnational set of networks and cells:

Al-Qaida has transitioned to a second, third, and arguably fourth generation. The reason relates especially to the second distinctive element of al-Qaida: its method of recruitment or, more accurately, its attraction of radicalized followers (both individuals and groups), many of whom in turn are connected to existing local networks. Al-Qaida’s spread has been compared to a virus or a bacterium, dispersing its contagion to disparate sites. Although this is a seductive analogy, it is also misleading: the perpetuation of al-Qaida is a sentient process involving well-considered marketing strategies and deliberate tactical decisions, not a mindless “disease” process; thinking of it as a “disease” shores up the unfortunate American tendency to avoid analyzing the mentality of the enemy. Al-Qaida is operating with a long-term strategy and is certainly not following the left-wing groups of the 1970s in their failure to articulate a coherent ideological vision or the peripatetic right-wing groups of the twentieth century. It has transitioned beyond its original structure and now represents a multigenerational threat with staying power comparable to the ethnonationalist groups of the twentieth century. Likewise, arguments about whether al-Qaida is best described primarily as an ideology or by its opposition to foreign occupation of Muslim lands are specious: al-Qaida’s adherents use both rationales to spread their links. The movement is opportunistic. The challenge for the United States and its allies is to move beyond rigid mind-sets and paradigms, do more in-depth analysis, and be more nimble and strategic in response to al-Qaida’s agenda.
Cronin notes that while terrorism may often be little more than a nuisance to states, the al Qaeda threat is real and potentially catastrophic, should some in the movement obtain weapons of mass destruction.

The group can be defeated, but for this to happen the U.S. needs to weaken al Qaeda's funding and communications, and exploit the group's internal inconsistencies and divisions (thus making al Qaeda's broad objectives inapplicable to local populations around the world).

American policymakers need also to reduce popular support for al Qaeda -- especially where the group's attacks alienate potential constituents -- and develop counter-marketing strategies that focus not on abstract "public diplomacy" focusing on American values and culture, but a counter-terrorist media response, outside of government outlets, that illustrates the heinous effects of al Qaeda atrocities on domestic populations:
The Bali attacks, the May 2003 attacks in Saudi Arabia, the Madrid attacks, the July 2005 London attacks—all were immediately and deliberately trumpeted by al-Qaida associates. Where was the coordinated counterterrorist multimedia response? There is nothing so effective at engendering public revulsion as images of murdered and maimed victims, many of whom resemble family members of would-be recruits, lying on the ground as the result of a terrorist act. Outrage is appropriate. Currently, however, those images are dominated by would-be family members in Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay. The West is completely outf anked on the airwaves, and its countermeasures are virtually nonexistent on the internet. But as the RIRA [Real Irish Republican Army], PFLP-GC [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine], and ETA [Basque Homeland and Freedom] cases demonstrate, the al-Qaida movement can undermine itself, if it is given help.
Military repression, Cronin argues, will only go so far toward defeating al Qaeda, but in places like Iraq, where al Qaeda has transitioned into an insurgency, the U.S. should seek to exploit the inevitable animosities engendered by outside actors commiting atrocities against local citizens tied to the land.

History shows , according to Cronin, that terrorist group decline or collapse -- the ETA, the IRA, or Shining Path in Peru, for example -- and there's no reason not to think that the same fate awaits al Qaeda.

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