Politics & Policy

Assessing Al Qaeda

It's not what you think.

For a little over a year now, a question has been nagging at the edge of my consciousness: Where have all the terrorists gone? Reports estimate that anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 potential fanatics passed through terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, with the lower number probably more accurate. In the popular imagination this equates to tens of thousands of murderous, ready-to-die Islamists itching to swarm our shores and wreak havoc. To stop them, the United States is spending tens of billions, reorganizing a significant portion of the federal government, and deploying military forces across the globe. This is all in addition to scaring the wits out of a significant portion of the American public for the past three years.

In a world in which even one WMD-equipped terrorist poses a first-order strategic threat, it is hard to argue against spending astronomical amounts to insure ourselves against another 9/11. The country’s interest is best served, however, by making sure that most of these billions are spent wisely. One approach is called for if we are facing 20,000 terrorists, but a far different one is required if what the United States is up against is a hundred or even a few dozen dedicated transnational terrorists. We need to know whether we are facing an inflamed Muslim world ready to throw thousands of suicide bombers against us or a tottering force of fanatics on the brink of collapse.

I think we may be facing the latter. It seems reasonable that if Islamist terror organizations had a couple thousand potential suicide bombers at their disposal they would launch them. Just think of what Hamas could do with even 500. If they started launching 100 a day against Israel for five days they could bring the Israeli government to its knees within a week. Since there is no reason to believe they have any moral constraints preventing them from conceiving such an operation, it seems to follow that the pool of potential suicide-bombers is pretty shallow. Al Qaeda may have a lot of emotional support in the Muslim world, but that does not seem to be translating into hundreds of recruits prepared to launch themselves on one-way missions.

Most Americans take it for granted that there are “sleeper” terrorist cells in this country and around the globe just waiting in the shadows for the word from Osama to activate themselves and kick off a tidal wave of destruction. We are told that al Qaeda has spread its tentacles to 60 or more countries and that there are numerous cells spread across the U.S. waiting for their strike orders. If this is so, why did the terrorists that struck Spain have to come over from Morocco? Was there not a single terrorist cell already in place that could be entrusted with the job? Why are all the threats to activate cells in Italy if the Italians don’t withdraw from Iraq proving to be a lot of empty air? Why is the recently discovered intelligence about an attack on Citigroup, the IMF, and the World Bank over three years old? Doesn’t al Qaeda have at least one agent in the U.S. who can walk around lower Manhattan and update that information on a monthly, quarterly, or even yearly basis?

Sleeper cells are a never-ending threat that never seems to materialize the way one would expect. If Osama really had 50 or a 100 terror cells spread throughout the West you’d think by now he would have activated them–even just a few of them. For almost three years Osama has been on the run. Many of al Qaeda’s top leaders are dead or captured and they have lost their safe bases in Afghanistan. If I were a terrorist mastermind with a huge organization of fanatics at my disposal, I would try to relieve some of the pressure by lashing out at my tormenters. Instead, Osama is reduced to periodic fits of wailing as he promises to engulf the West in a sea of fire. If Osama really has a large terrorist organization at his disposal, he is demonstrating godlike forbearance. But can that same level of patience be attributed to these ghost cells spread across the globe? To date, not one of them has self-activated, a remarkable event considering all of Osama’s post-9/11 injunctions for Muslims to rise up and kill Americans wherever they find us.

The 9/11 Commission’s final report is filled with little hints that support the theory that al Qaeda is not as extensive a network as it is credited to be. To identify just a few:

‐The report states that al Qaeda wanted “25 or 26 hijackers, but ended up with only 19.” This indicates that there is no extensive network available in the U.S. that could be called upon to provide more muscle for the attack.

‐The report states that the 9/11 terrorists were assisted in their travels by only two other al Qaeda operatives. One of them, Ali, “assisted nine future hijackers between April and June 2001.” Sending all of their operatives through one or two contacts is extremely risky. If either of these travel guides had been compromised it would have led authorities to most if not all of the hijackers. In a perfect environment, al Qaeda would have infiltrated its 19 terrorists through 19 separate routes and methods. The fact they did not indicates that the organization’s support networks in other countries are very limited.

‐The report states that it is “remarkable” that Mohammed Atta and the rest of his Hamburg Cell were entrusted with leadership roles in the 9/11 plot only weeks after swearing loyalty to Osama. Since the plot had been in the planning stages for a long time prior to Atta’s arrival, this indicates that al Qaeda’s talent pool of personnel capable of operating in the West is severely limited.

But what of the tens of thousands of Islamists who have gone through the terror training camps in Afghanistan? It’s a pretty safe bet that quite a number of them are no longer in the terrorist structure. The 5,000-man Arab brigade fighting for the Taliban was pretty well decimated in 2001. Untold thousands have been ground up by the Russians in Chechnya, while many thousands more have met their fate in Kashmir and throughout Central Asia. Add all of these losses to the many thousands who tired of the struggle and went home (even fanatics have their limits when it comes to being miserable and hunted) and we are probably are facing a force of less then 10,000. The number of Arabs from other countries being captured in Iraq would seem to support this contention. Of this 10,000, only the smallest fraction would be capable of operating in the West without calling attention to their activities.

Leads discovered on a computer captured this July in Pakistan facilitated the recent arrests in London. The members of this group had been under surveillance by British authorities for some time before the computer discovery was made. In fact, the leader of this group was a close family relation to key planners of the 1993 World Trade Center attack and the 9/11 attacks–another indication that al Qaeda is not that deep at the top echelons. It also would have been nice–that is, for those who claim al Qaeda is a large networked organization–if the newly discovered trove of information pointed to just one cell, anywhere in the world, that we did not already know about. To date, there is no indication that it has.

Another interesting tidbit that has come out of this newly discovered intelligence is that new recruits are being brought into al Qaeda to take up the leadership positions of those who have fallen or been captured. Why would an organization that has been training tens of thousands of Islamists for over a decade have to recruit new members for leadership positions? It appears that there is not much of a bench in the old al Qaeda.

Besides presumed access to unlimited numbers of foot soldiers, the one thing that has made al Qaeda feared is money. Through Osama’s personal fortune and monies collected from wealthy supporters and charitable front organizations, al Qaeda is supposedly able to channel hundreds of millions of dollars into terrorist groups worldwide. To get access to this funding, each of these organizations had to subordinate its will to al Qaeda, creating a formidable terror network directed at a common goal. Assumptions about the financial health of al Qaeda were already being questioned before the 9/11 Commission Report put the final nails in the coffin. According to the report, Osama was near-broke when he arrived in Afghanistan. He never really had access to the $300 million fortune he is reported to have inherited. What money he did have was eaten up by a string of spectacularly bad investments and the cost of paying off governments that protected him. According to the 9/11 Commission, al Qaeda was able to collect $30 million a year to fund ongoing operations; however, two-thirds of that was delivered to the Taliban for the right to stay in the country. The rest was quickly consumed by daily overhead.

A recent article in The Atlantic by Alan Cushion divulges some remarkable material found on an al Qaeda computer discovered in Afghanistan. In e-mails going back and forth between top al Qaeda commanders, there is constant squabbling over sums as low as a few hundred dollars. These conversations indicate an organization facing penury rather than one rolling in funds. Other reports have already outlined how al Qaeda operatives were told to get jobs to finance their operations and how even Mohamed Atta sent unspent funds back to al Qaeda before 9/11. What is one to think of terrorists who after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing were so short of funds they went back to claim the deposit on the truck used to hide the explosives? It is also probably safe to assume al Qaeda’s financial picture has not improved in the last few years. It is hard to conceive of where it will find the millions to keep other terrorist groups loyal and stop them from pursuing their own private agendas.

The above speculation is the result of my personal interpretation of scanty data published in open sources. There may be information I am not aware of pointing in the opposite direction. However, the body of evidence publicly available today leads to the unmistakable conclusion that al Qaeda is an almost spent force.

Real dangers do remain, however. Even a tottering al Qaeda could probably scrape up the resources to launch one or more spectacular attacks over the next few years. Everything must therefore be done to keep the remnants of al Qaeda on the ropes and prevent them from launching a new strike on U.S. soil. More dangerous, though, is the very real threat that a new al Qaeda will rise from the ashes of the last. This organization would be staffed by men who had learned the lessons of the first and who are possibly receiving substantial state support from countries feeling threatened by our response to 9/11.

Given access to WMDs, any new terrorist group would be able to launch a truly catastrophic attack. This is reason enough to spend billions combating any new terror organization. But before too many more dollars are spent, the U.S. needs to understand and define the threat. What remains of al Qaeda should mainly be left to intelligence and law-enforcement organizations to roll up. Outside of Special Forces units, the role of military force is likely to be limited. We must spend resources not only on rooting out current terrorists, but on setting conditions that will make it hard for the “al Qaeda after next” to find recruits, support, and sanctuaries. While many thousands may be willing to risk life and limb in combat against American forces located in Iraq, all evidence supports the conclusion that very few are interested in or capable of taking offensive action against America. The few that are should be the focus of our military, intelligence, and law-enforcement organizations.

The threat is real, but it should not be exaggerated. Al Qaeda is a deadly organization that needs to be eradicated. It is not, however, the ten-foot tall enemy it’s often portrayed to be.

Jim Lacey is a Washington-based writer focusing on defense and international affairs issues. He was embedded with the 101st Airborne during the war in Iraq.


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