Sunday, May 27, 2007

Al Qaeda Strikes Back! The Iraq Stronghold and the Organization's Global Reach

Bruce Riedel's lead article in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs on al Qaeda's global comeback is both stimulating and disturbing. Riedel argues that after the 2001 U.S. toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan, al Qaeda regrouped in Pakistan, building a new base of operations in that country geared primarily to the organization's survival. Yet, after the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 -- amid the festering insurgency -- al Qaeda established a new base of operations there that emerged as one of the group's key strongholds:

The U.S. invasion of Iraq took the pressure off al Qaeda in the Pakistani badlands and opened new doors for the group in the Middle East. It also played directly into the hands of al Qaeda leaders by seemingly confirming their claim that the United States was an imperialist force, which helped them reinforce various local alliances. In Iraq, Zarqawi adopted a two-pronged strategy to alienate U.S. allies and destabilize the country. He sought to isolate U.S. forces by driving out all other foreign forces with systematic terrorist attacks, most notably the bombings of the United Nations headquarters and the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad in the summer of 2003. More important, he focused on the fault line in Iraqi society -- the divide between Sunnis and Shiites -- with the goal of precipitating a civil war. He launched a series of attacks on the Shiite leadership, holy Shiite sites, and Shiite men and women on the street. He organized the assassination of the senior leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, in the summer of 2003, and the bombings of Shiite shrines in Najaf and Baghdad in March 2004 and in Najaf and Karbala in December 2004. Even by the ruthless standards of al Qaeda, Zarqawi excelled....

Zarqawi's group, al Qaeda in Iraq, has continued to foment sectarian unrest. In February 2006, it attacked one of the country's most sacred Shiite sites, the Golden Mosque in Samarra. Zarqawi's death last summer changed little. In October 2006, the group proclaimed the independence of a Sunni state -- "the Islamic State of Iraq" -- in Sunni-majority areas, such as Baghdad, Mosul, and Anbar Province, declaring its opposition not just to the U.S. occupation but also to the Iranian-backed Shiite region in the south and to the Kurdish region in the north (which it says is supported by Israel). Most of all, al Qaeda in Iraq has continued to orchestrate massacres against Shiites in Baghdad.
From Iraq, al Qaeda has been able to shore-up its terrorist partners in Pakistan, as well as extend its global reach, particularly in the West. (Britain's Islamists are cited by Riedel as having particularly strong connections to al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, and the article restates some of the key points on terrorism in the U.K. that I raised in my earlier post, "Londonistan Calling?")

Riedel goes on to note how al Qaeda has been looking to expand its operations in a diverse set of locations, such as Lebanon, Gaza, Bangladesh, and a number of states in Africa, like Algeria and Somalia. Riedal also argues that an ultimate goal of Osama Bin Laden is to foment an all-out war between the U.S. and Iran. The article goes on to make a number of policy recommendations on how the U.S. can defeat al Qaeda going forward.

Read the whole thing. Riedel recently retired from the CIA after 29 years of service, and is now an analyst on Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution. I'm not sure if I completely find his argument persuasive, however. It's no doubt that al Qaeda has regrouped overall, and
the Bush administration has cited al Qaeda operations in Iraq in its recent efforts to maintain public support for the deployment there. However, Riedel's piece, while dutifully mentioning the group's "decentralization" and the activities of copycat terrorist cells, nevertheless conveys the impression of an intensely well-organized global movement, with far-flung ambitions and resources, with a lot of stress on the central role of Bin Laden.

In an earlier post, however, I cited Audrey Kurth Cronin's article in International Security on defeating al Qaeda. Cronin's piece shares some similarities with Riedel's argument, but she's much more clear in stressing the non-monolithic nature of al Qaeda. Cronin points out strongly that the al Qaeda entity is fluid, nebulous, and has strong ties to freelance terrorist operations worldwide -- her characterization of al Qaeda indeed points to more organizational weakness than strength. Much less than Reidel, Cronin downplays the stress on knock-out blows against al Qaeda (like "decapitating" top leadership in Pakistan). Defeating al Qaeda will likely come after a long, twilight struggle, using a range of means, many non-military (like reducing the group's financial and popular support). Both authors agree, of course, that the al Qaeda threat remains a top national security concern for the U.S. policymakers. Unfortunately, as is the case with the Iraq War, victory over al Qaeda may not come on the same short-term timetable that is being called for by American public opinion.

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