The al Qaeda watchers have a new chant: They tell us that the once-centralized terror organization is now largely decentralized, and that the separate cells have a great deal of autonomy. Osama bin Laden may still provide the ideology, but the locals do their own planning and operations. Thus, the Washington Post found that the expert consensus on the London attacks was that, yes, these people might be linked to al Qaeda in a broad, political/religious/ideological way, but the operation itself, like many in the recent past (Madrid, for example), was a local product.
To be sure, this claim is carefully hedged with language like “but bin Laden (or Zawahiri or Zarqawi or whoever) still has a great deal of influence,” so that if it turns out that AQ is more centralized than not, they can still say “I told you so.”
Nice to have that sort of flexibility. And they’re right to be flexible, because there is every reason to believe that both statements are correct: There are plenty of independent cells (indeed, there are plenty of terrorist groups), but there is intimate cooperation, which runs through the terror masters of Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.
Some of the smartest AQ watchers, like Peter Bergen, have always said that the organization is like a decentralized corporation, not a military style top-down structure. So the notion of highly independent cells is old hat, neither an analytic breakthrough nor, in fact, a recent development.
Many of the watchers have earned their credentials and are entitled to our respect, but they’re groping pieces of the animal, not sensing its overall shape. Shortly after the liberation of Afghanistan, I wrote that it no longer made sense to talk about al Qaeda as the primary organizing force of the terror network, because al Qaeda had been shattered and had lost its operational base with the defeat of the Taliban. I suggested that there were many different terrorist groups–the most important of which was, and is, Hezbollah–and they would cooperate on a rough division of labor, depending on local capacity, expertise, connections, and so forth. But I also argued that there was now a new operational base: Iran, where bin Laden and several others had fled from Afghanistan. And I insisted that there would be considerable coherence in terrorist actions, because the mullahs would insist on overall guidance.
The centrality of Iran in the terror network is the dirty secret that most everyone knows, but will not pronounce. Our military people in both Iraq and Afghanistan have copious evidence of the Iranian role in the terror war against us and our allies. Every now and then Rumsfeld makes a passing reference to it. But we have known about Iranian assassination teams in Afghanistan ever since the fall of the Taliban, and we know that Iranians continue to fund, arm, and guide the forces of such terrorists as Gulbadin Hekmatyar. We know that Zarqawi operated out of Tehran for several years, and that one of his early successes–the creation of Ansar al Islam in northern Iraq, well before the arrival of Coalition forces–had Iranian approval and support. We also know that Zarqawi created a European terror network, again while in Tehran, and therefore the “news” that he has been recycled into the European theater is not news at all. It is testimony to his, and the Iranians, central role in the terrorist enterprise. And we know–from documents and photographs captured in Iraq during military operations against the terrorists–that the jihad in Iraq is powerfully supported by Damascus, Tehran, and Riyadh.
The insistence that “al Qaeda”–defined as the main enemy–is highly decentralized has a lethal effect on designing an effective antiterrorist policy, for it reinforces the strategic paralysis that currently afflicts this administration. If we conceive the war against the terrorists as a long series of discrete engagements against separate groups in many countries, we will likely fail, beginning with Iraq. We have killed thousands of terrorists there, and arrested many more, and yet we clearly have not dominated them. I quite believe that we are gaining support and cooperation from the Iraqi people, and I am in awe of the bravery and skills of our military men and women. But we are fighting a sucker’s war in Iraq, because the terrorists get a great deal of their support from the Syrians, Saudis, and Iranians, all of whom are rolling in oil money, all of whom are maneuvering desperately for survival, because they fear our most potent weapon: the democratic revolution that is simmering throughout the region, most recently in a series of street battles in Iranian cities.
We can’t win this thing unless we recognize the real dimensions of the enemy forces, and the global aspirations they harbor. The battle for Iraq is today’s fight, but they intend to expand the war throughout the Western world. Indeed, that was their plan from the very beginning. From 9/11. Here is a story (thanks to Captain Ed at “Captain’s Quarters“) that should make the matter clear to all of us. It appeared in the London Times on July 24:
Mohammed Afroze was sentenced (in Bombay, India) to seven years after he admitted that he had a role in an al Qaeda plot to attack London, the Rialto Towers building in Melbourne (Australia) and the Indian Parliament.
Afroze admitted that he and seven al Qaeda operatives planned to hijack aircraft at Heathrow and fly them into the two London landmarks. The suicide squad included men from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, Afroze said. They booked seats on two Manchester-bound flights, but fled just before they were due to board.
If that’s right–and I would have expected a feeding frenzy over this court judgment, wouldn’t you?–then 9/11 was conceived as a global extravaganza, not just an attack against the United States. And I wonder if the “cells” in India, Australia and Great Britain were all that decentralized. After all, they were coordinated for a specific date, weren’t they?
I have long believed that when we finally unravel the 9/11 plot, we will find a great number of terrorist organizations involved, each playing its role in supporting the enterprise. I don’t believe it’s sensible to believe that these various groups, scattered around the world, could have coordinated such an undertaking only by their own efforts; we have seen too many terrorist screw-ups to take that one seriously (if Mr. Afroze is to be believed, for example, he and his guys chickened out at the last moment, just like numerous other suicide terrorists have).
President Bush’s original instincts were right: We are at war with a series of terrorist groups, supported by a group of nations, and it makes no sense to distinguish between them. We’re fighting fiercely against the terror groups, and we’re killing and defeating lots of them. But we’re not nearly as vigorous as we should be in speeding up the fall of the mullahs, the Assads, and a Saudi royal family that has played the leading role in spreading the doctrines that inspire the terrorists.
Can we move a bit faster, please?