Al Qaeda isn’t the only terrorist group we’re up against.
The real al Qaeda–the al Qaeda that attacked us on September 11, the al Qaeda we are hunting in Pakistan and Afghanistan right now–is a dangerous enemy, but it’s not the only al Qaeda. There’s another, equally dangerous al Qaeda: the mythical, ten-foot-tall al Qaeda we create when we give the group credit for every major terrorist attack, everywhere in the world, heedless of evidence that, in many cases, points elsewhere. The press does that, routinely. In the collective media mind, when it comes to terrorism, if it’s international, it must be al Qaeda, and if it’s al Qaeda, then the reflex assumption is that local and/or regional terrorist groups can’t be involved. They’re off the hook, along with the terror-sponsoring states that are currently attacking us by proxy.
The reality we face is nothing like this one-dimensional caricature. In the terror world of the 21st century, al Qaeda is not the only terrorist entity that threatens us; neither is it the only terror group with an international reach. There are at least a half dozen others in the Middle East alone, and it’s a great mistake to let them all hide behind the slogan “al Qaeda did it.” Al Qaeda didn’t create these other terrorist groups and they won’t just vanish when we wipe al Qaeda out. The Salafists and the Armed Islamic Group that slaughtered upwards of 100,000 civilians in Algeria, then spread to Morocco and on to Spain will still be here, threatening the West. The Muslim Brotherhood that arose in Egypt, assassinated Anwar Sadat, spread to Jordan, Syria, and beyond, and sprouted dozens of violent offshoots in as many lands preceded al Qaeda, and bids fair to survive it. Hezbollah, the terrorist proxy Iran and Syria control, will still be here, still welcoming foreign terrorists from all over the world into Lebanon, funneling them into Iraq, and joining with them in attacks against us and the Iraqi people. Of course we need to get al Qaeda, and we will, but we need to recognize and respond effectively to the other threats that face us too.
To do that, we need to be clear about the fact that the conventional wisdom of striped-pants style “experts” is the opposite of the truth. These “experts” have been telling us for years that Sunni terrorists will never collude with Shiite terrorists, let alone with secular terrorist groups like ETA, the IRA, and the PA. Don’t believe them. In the terror world of the 21st century, all these groups not only can but routinely do cooperate with one another–with al Qaeda and its offshoots, Jamat al Islamiya and Ansar al Islam, and on occasion with terrorists from Chechnya, the Caucasus, and beyond. They find it easy to cooperate when it suits their purposes, because they all subscribe to one overriding article of faith: The enemy of my enemy is my friend, at least for the moment.
Because we don’t grasp this, we make al Qaeda look mightier and more fearsome than it is, and fail to understand or take effective action against other terrorist groups and states that pose real threats to us and to our allies. There are many examples of this. Let me offer three specific ones below, then conclude by spelling out some of the more general ways in which these myths and misperceptions help our enemies, hurt us, and retard our progress in the war on terrorism.
Let’s look first at the March 11 attack on Spain’s morning rush-hour trains, and the way the press reported it. Evidence that Islamic terrorists from abroad were involved in the multiple, simultaneous train bombings in Madrid is persuasive, but the conclusion the press and the Spanish Socialist party instantly leapt to–that al Qaeda alone was responsible–is not. Neither is the charge that the now-defeated Spanish government lied when, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, it focused suspicion on ETA, the violent Basque separatist group that tumbles down both sides of the Pyrennees, threatening France as well as Spain. In fact, Jose Maria Aznar’s government had good reason to look first to ETA, because it had evidence that ETA had been trying to attack Spanish trains in the months before March 11, and the fact that foreign terrorists were involved in that attack is no proof that ETA wasn’t. Which foreign terrorists? Al Qaeda is certainly one possibility. We know there is an active al Qaeda cell in Spain, but it’s not as if it has the field all to itself. As real experts like David McCormack and Colleen Gilbert of Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy pointed out in the Jerusalem Post on March 15, the Armed Islamic Group, the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, and members of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood are also active on Spanish soil. These groups have cooperated with ETA in the past and with al Qaeda too, and the fact that so many of the suspects arrested thus far are from Spain’s near neighbor, Morocco, makes Salafist and/or Armed Islamist Group involvement look especially likely. Surprise, surprise, there is also a chest-thumping letter, claiming all the credit for al Qaeda one more time, but another real expert, MEMRI’s master translator, Yigal Carmon, says the style it is written in differs from bin Laden’s style in significant ways.
Lisa Myers of NBC News provides us with our second example. In an otherwise trenchant March 16 article on the failure of the Clinton administration to go after Osama bin Laden when it could and should have, Myers was not content to credit bin Laden with the horrific second attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. She asserts that he was also responsible for the first attack on the Trade Towers on February 26, 1993–and thus contributes to the myth of an all-powerful, omnipresent al Qaeda. But this is an extremely dubious claim. The evidence here is not as clear as it should be, because the Clinton administration refused to recognize that attack for what it was–an act of war–and handled it strictly as a law enforcement matter, cutting the CIA and the DIA out of the investigation. As a result, we got a criminal conviction against the terrorist mastermind behind the attack–a man we call “Ramzi Yousef”–without coming any closer than we were before the trial to any real understanding of who this mysterious frequent flyer with multiple names and passports really is. To our official “experts,” it’s a mystery still. Unofficially, the available evidence–evidence meticulously assembled and expertly analyzed by Laurie Mylroie–indicates that ‘Ramzi Passports’ was an Iraqi intelligence agent. Recognizing this likelihood interferes with the Left’s insistence that Iraq was not a terrorist threat to us until we toppled Saddam Hussein. In fact, it appears Iraq has been a terrorist threat for some time.
Example three brings us to our current troubles in Iraq. The first time I wrote about foreign terrorists invading Iraq with the help of hostile border states like Iran and Syria, State Department spokesmen were still insisting that local Baathist remnants were the only significant threat in Iraq. Subsequent developments have made it increasingly clear that many of the most devastating attacks on our forces, our allies, and the Iraqi people were and are the work of foreign terrorists–but, once again, the automatic assumption has been that if they’re foreign, they must be al Qaeda. This is a non-sequitor. Al Qaeda is active in Iraq, but Hezbollah is too and is as least as dangerous because it is a proxy for Iran and Syria, the two states with the most to fear from a free Iraq. The ruling despots in both of those countries are already under threat from their own people: Students and workers have been mounting mass protests all over Iran; fed-up Kurds are fighting back in the Syrian north; and a few brave Arabs and Christians are trying to raise their voices in the rest of Syria and in occupied Lebanon too. Syria’s Baathist Alawite tyrants and Iran’s hated Khomeini-style mullahs all know in their quaking bones that if we succeed in creating a free Iraq on their very doorstep, their grip on their increasingly restive people will ultimately fail, and they are desperate to prevent that. The bottom line here, as I argued in October, is that we’re not likely to succeed in stabilizing Iraq until we face up to the role that Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah are playing, and force them to stop training foreign terrorists and funneling them into Iraq.
In all three cases described above and others besides, al Qaeda is happy to take sole credit for attacks in which it is only one of a number of terrorist actors, as well as for those in which it had no role at all. It makes al Qaeda look supernaturally powerful, making it easier to recruit new jihadis and to intimidate weak-willed governments, and it has no downside, because al Qaeda no longer has an address. Since we successfully drove them from power in Afghanistan, they have only a warren of widely dispersed, hard-to-find holes to hide in, mostly in the wild mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan, in a few failed African states, and in Iran. Occasional jealousies aside, other terror groups and states are generally happy to see al Qaeda get all the credit, because they do have obvious local addresses and hence greater reason to fear our retaliation. Blaming everything on al Qaeda gives them what is, in effect, a free pass, letting them operate with impunity, hiding in plain sight.
The overall bottom line here is this: Of course we need to kill or capture bin Laden–and we will, sooner or later–but to win the war on terror we need to do much more. We need to demythologize al Qaeda, and then focus clearly and realistically on each of the remaining terror groups and terror states that threaten us. We need to go on the offensive against them, too, mounting an aggressive, unrelenting campaign aimed at bringing them to their knees and empowering native freedom fighters already locked in unequal combat with them. I believe George W. Bush understands that, but there’s no denying the fact that politically it’s a very tough sell. It’s hard enough to unify the wobbly West behind the necessity to fight together against obvious enemies like al Qaeda; it’s doubly daunting to garner support, at home and abroad, for the broader war we need to fight. But it must be done. Unless and until we do garner such support, the odds of achieving stability in Iraq and a decisive victory in the overall war on terror are just not good enough.
Despite the difficulty, and the many ways in which the election campaign heightens it, President Bush is moving in the right direction. He’s planning to turn up the sanctions screws on Syria this week, and that’s a good thing, but it would be even better if he would speak out on Iran, too, expressing our sympathy for the Iranian people’s struggle for democracy and condemning the brutal measures the mullahs are using to repress them. Is it too risky to do that, prior to the election? Maybe, if you think the election can be won on the defensive. My guess is that, like the war on terror, it can only be won on the offensive. And an offense that rallies behind people who are already fighting for freedom makes more sense than pressing for democracy in places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan where there is, as yet, no real constituency for it.
–Barbara Lerner is a freelance writer in Chicago.