Politics & Policy

The Union of The Snake

Al Qaeda planning and possibilities.

Recently several events have conspired to raise the question of whether the U.S. is due for another major domestic terror attack. A communiqué between Osama bin Laden and his chief lieutenant Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi was intercepted in which bin Laden suggested that Zarqawi turn his attentions away from Iraq and towards hitting the United States. Meanwhile the Department of Homeland Security’s “National Planning Scenarios” report was accidentally posted to the web, causing a minor stir. The report posits a variety of forbidding possibilities (such as spreading pneumonic plague in airport bathrooms) in order to aid in budgeting, planning preemptive measures, and responding to terrorist attack. The scenarios are graphic and frightening, but also hypothetical, not those necessarily thought most likely to happen, or even suggested by actual terrorists. Around the same time, a confidential FBI report cast doubt that AQ could undertake any large-scale attacks inside the US, given their lack of infrastructure and the heightened security climate. Yet information purportedly from a top Zarqawi aid indicated that he would not be looking to repeat something like 9/11 but would aim at softer targets, such as “movie theaters, restaurants and schools.”

So will it happen? Apparently, they have been thinking about it for some time, and with a good degree of frustration. This same top aide said that Zarqawi fumed about the “lack of willing martyrs,” of people willing to die in the process of hitting the U.S. homeland. This is a significant admission, since the popular belief is that the terrorists can draw from a bottomless well of volunteers to conduct their missions. You would think that if there were volunteers ready to do anything they would be most keen to take on the Great Satan. Hitting U.S. targets is their version of the major leagues. Any terrorist worth the label would consider striking at us the very definition of success in his profession. And it is a quick ticket to immortality. Everyone remembers Mohammed Atta; operations in Iraq just do not get the same kind of coverage. Even al Qaeda press releases are unsatisfying for the fame-seeking vest bomber. Note for example this one from a February suicide attack in Baquba:

On Monday, a martyr was wed to Paradise, and what a good martyr he was! …One of the monotheism lions from the Martyrdom-seekers Brigade of Al-Qa’ida of Jihad Organization in the Land of the Two Rivers carried out a martyrdom attack against the infidels and the apostates in Ba’qubah, may God grant it and the rest of the country freedom from its bondage. Congratulations to you, brother in monotheism!

O.K., but what was his name? Can’t his friends and family get bragging rights for all those innocent people he blew up? Zarqawi needs to rethink his incentivization program. The jihad is not all about him.

Zarqawi may gripe privately about the sorry condition of terrorist voluntarism, but he has no problem heaping blame on the Iraqi people for not supporting him as he seeks to liberate them from the “humiliation” of freedom and democracy. In the first edition of his new online magazine, Dhurwat al-Sanam [literally the highest point on the camel’s hump–in this context, the highest obligation] he published an editorial explaining why al Qaeda has lately been targeting policemen, Iraqi army troops and “everyone whose soul is debased and who assists infidels in their war against Muslims in the territory of Iraq.” He has been forced to do it for their own good. The Iraqis have not mobilized their human resources to supply him with the foot soldiers he needs. They have not “united under one banner of clear vision” (i.e., al Qaeda’s) to bring the fight to the infidels. They have not prevented vice where they see it. Moreover, they have the nerve to condemn the actions of the “fraternal [foreign] Mujahedin” that have come to Iraq to do the job the Iraqis should be doing for themselves. The editorial is thick with frustration. You get the idea he does not think they are winning.

Measured by al Qaeda’s own strategic goals they surely are not. Recall that according to a letter captured over a year ago, al Qaeda was seeking actively to promote what many feared was going to be the natural course of events in post-Saddam Iraq, a civil war between the Shias, Kurds, and Sunnis. Al Qaeda’s purpose was to promote this brand of chaos and then exploit it. However, despite their best efforts, the expected civil war did not materialize. Indeed, the Iraqis have been much more willing to live and let live than anyone would have given them credit for. Yes, there is violence, but not the full-scale ethnic conflict that many even in this country had predicted. Rationality won out over the supposed hatreds that these groups were said to harbor against each other. Al Qaeda has not given up on the strategy–witness the March 10 bombing at a Shia mosque in Kurdish Mosul, while across town representatives of the Shia List and the Kurdish Alliance were busy negotiating the details of the new government. But the bombing failed to derail the negotiations; the two sides know who the real enemy is.

Bin Laden’s sense of entitlement has angered many Iraqis–a wealthy Saudi hiding in Afghanistan appoints a Jordanian malcontent the Prince of Iraq, and they proceed to declare any Muslims who participate in free elections heretics worthy of death? How many ways can al Qaeda find to offend people? This is probably why bin Laden wants to shift gears and get back to trying to attack the US directly. Bin Laden and Zarqawi are reportedly mulling over new strategies, trying to reach some kind of consensus. The Washington Post reported that some analysts have concluded from this that Zarqawi is an independent operator–despite the pledge of abject fealty to Osama he issued last October, and the fact that he renamed his group “Al Qaeda of the Two Rivers.” Saddam is out of the picture yet the monomania to de-link Iraq and al Qaeda continues. It just goes to show that the government is still rife with analysts who seek to draw complexity out of simplicity whenever possible. No wonder we have not caught bin Laden yet.

Al Qaeda wants to hit us again. They have been threatening it for years. The fact that they have not managed to do so yet is a measure both of our effectiveness in combating terrorism and their relative weakness and disorganization. This does not mean they cannot attack–the soft-target scenario is especially troubling–but even if they did, it would hardly change the course of a war that they are without doubt losing badly.

James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and an NRO contributor.

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