Politics & Policy

Picture Perfect

The war on terrorism is looking good.

The thing I like best about terrorist-takedown reportage is the before and after shot. Take for example the latest, of al Qaeda honcho Abu Farraj al-Libbi. In his wanted posters, he looks very urbane and sophisticated. In the after shot, not so inspiring. And I am not getting on his case about the vitiligo, the skin disease that gives him that mottled look. He could not help that. Rather it is the classic mug-shot mien. Hair mussed, clothes rumpled, downcast–nothing remotely heroic about it. It looks a bit like he is wearing mascara, and one report that indicated he was hiding his movements by dressing in a full chador though another attributed this disguise to the Pakistani security forces who were tracking him. Maybe they were all in drag. Imagine the chase.

My point is not simply to gloat; the pictures send useful messages. To those contemplating a livelihood in the exciting field of terrorism, the connotation is that it’s not all romance, bombing embassies by day and carousing at Cairo discos by night. Sometimes it is bailing off a motorcycle in a Pakistani graveyard under fire, taking refuge in a nearby house and being tear-gassed into submission. Not exactly an auspicious end to Abu Farraj’s career.

The message to the rest of us is that we are winning. We’re winning well. That stated, al Qaeda remains a threat because, despite all the hardships they face, many of these people refuse to give up. Most of them are ideologically motivated and committed sociopaths. They have a need to kill. Our civilization and their organization cannot coexist in this world–they will be the first to admit it. So the Coalition is forced to wage war on them, to track them down, capture, or kill them, one by one. It takes time, but gradually the job is getting done.

The daily life of an al Qaeda leader is an endurance test for survival. They spend their time moving from safe house to safe house, in constant fear of discovery, attempting vainly to organize large-scale attacks on their enemies and speculating when they will be betrayed by their friends. It is not a rewarding existence, not even by terrorist standards. This cannot be the jihad they signed up for. Even the most committed among them may be wondering when Osama’s master plan is going to kick in and they will start winning a few rounds.

Al Qaeda’s failure to achieve any of its strategic goals or to conduct operations against the U.S. homeland is discouraging to some of its members. Recently Abu Musab al-Zarqawi complained about the lack of “willing martyrs” for attacks on the United States. Several days ago, U.S. Central Command posted a letter to Zarqawi from one of his underlings that revealed low morale and lack of trust within his organization. Zarqawi is not exactly safe either; he recently narrowly evaded capture during a hot pursuit by bailing out of a pickup truck under a highway underpass. Coalition forces captured his laptop and a trove of documents. Now he being reported allegedly wounded, or maybe sick, frequenting a hospital apparently for treatment. His insurgency controls no territory, and apart from being able to inflict some casualties, Zarqawi does not seem to be making much progress in his area of responsibility.

Abu Farraj was reportedly al Qaeda’s chief of operations for the wider world, particularly Europe and the United States. He succeeded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed when he was taken out of circulation in March 2003 (another classic capture photo). He is said to have planned the September 25, 2004, assassination attempts on Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf, who has been on al Qaeda’s “to do” list since abandoning the Taliban soon after 9/11. Since then Pakistan has not helped round up terrorists with the vigor we may have wanted, but assassination attempts tend to get a dictator’s attention. Musharraf also recently for the first time stated that he believed bin Laden may be hiding in his country, a significant shift which may show a new seriousness about taking down the still at large remnants of the al Qaeda leadership.

Events may now follow quickly; this is a dangerous time for everyone in the terrorist network. They cannot know what the exploitation teams are getting from captured documents and interrogations, so they have to engage their evasion plans and go to ground as quickly as possible. This entails risk–they can make mistakes in the rush to get under cover. It will be interesting to see in the coming weeks how many subsidiary raids are made, how many terrorists flushed, how many brought in alive. For al Qaeda it means some sleepless nights–that is, more than usual.

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

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