Is this the way al Qaeda’s decade or so of terror pre-eminence ends? The details are still coming out but from what I’ve seen so far, the latest attempt to attack an American jetliner was done by a wealthy scion of a Nigerian banker who had explosive underwear that he was unable to detonate.
Now it is impossible (and stupid) to say that terrorism is over, but this sort of pathetic, bumbling attempt on a single jet in the US is a far cry from the massive synchronized assaults that were the trademark of al Qaeda’s perverse spectacles. Part of what makes a terror group successful is the perception of it as fearsome and daring – the sort of appeal that villains like Jesse James have accrued at other times. The pampered son of a banker setting his pants on firing and failing at it is not fearsome and daring, it’s lame. Recruiting disaffected young men in the wake of the 9/11 spectacle was surely easy for al Qaeda, doing so in the wake of this latest clusterfuck is surely a different matter.
I am confident that al Qaeda will continue to attempt to launch attacks and I think it even reasonable to expect some of them to succeed, but I also think this latest incident is indicative of their current capabilities. This will snowball, no one wants to join a group that is a shell of its former self.
I should also like to note that this plot could have been foiled with some good police work and some information, the father of this young man reported his suspicions – no waterboarding was necessary. I eagerly await Cheney calling to invade Nigeria though, perhaps he’s awaiting his large payments from that nice Nigerian general who he met through his email.
This post caught my attention. The argument that Jeffrey Goldberg makes is that Afghanistan isn’t really a “central front” in any kind of war on terror. (An aside, once again, why are we fighting a tactic?Using current nomenclature we should call the Cold War the “War on Missiles, Tanks, and Submarines” or something.) Anyway, my quibbles with Goldberg’s wording aside, I think he raises a salient point: Afghanistan is a place where al Qaeda could train, but most of al Qaeda’s members come from elsewhere.
What this means is that NATO is caught in a place where there was little native impulse to attack NATO countries because the preceding regime had allowed al Qaeda to hide out there. NATO troops may be able to make some temporary improvements in the lives of women, but these seem not to withstand NATO’s withdrawal from any particular area. Reforms do not extend beyond the range of NATO arms.
It should now be readily apparent that all we are doing in Afghanistan is propping up a budding dictator in Hamid Karzai while creating native anger at the West by bombing weddings and destroying the poppy crop that provides a livelihood for many farmers.
Why does the West prop up Musharraf? Well, we’re told that he’s the only thing keeping al Qaeda from having a nuclear weapon. But is he? It appears not if you look at Juan Cole’s breakdown of Pakistan’s election:
“Bottom line, the Pakistani public has demonstrated a dislike of extremism, including religious extremism, awarding a plurality of seats in the national legislature to secular parties and the rest to right-of-center parties, but roundly rejecting the fundamentalists.”
If the election results are any indication, neither Pakistanis nor the West need Musharraf.
Or is Pervez Musharraf actually a problem? I had previously commented that Musharraf had been ineffective in dealing with North Waziristan. It does appear though that he’s waging some sort of counter-insurgency there – perhaps it’s just not going all that well. Will North Waziristan remain a small wedge of the world impenetrable to anything but its own tribal codes and hierarchies? I’m sure the West could invade it and occupy it but like Afghanistan I’m sure that the West would have much more difficulty changing it. Is it conceivably a semi-permanent hideout for al Qaeda’s top brass?
“But there is law: the traditional Pashtun tribal code, Pashtunwali, that strictly governs behavior and personal honor. Protecting guests was sacred. I was captivated by this majestic mountain region and wrote of it extensively in my book, `War at the Top of the World.’”
He then goes on to outline some disastrous consequences if an attempt was made to go into northwestern Pakistan and to be honest, I’d say that they seem probable. If nothing else, the above quote makes it unlikely that even a Pashtun tribal group that didn’t particularly like bin Laden would turn him over to anyone.
The problem remains though that Musharraf is doing relatively little about the situation either. Michael Scheuer remarked on CBC’s The Current that Musharraf really had no incentive to upset the sizable Pashtun population in Pakistan. Given that things have been going poorly for Musharraf lately anyway, I suspect that he doesn’t want to do the Pakistani politics equivalent of hitting a hornets’ nest with a baseball bat.
It now appears that the regrouping al Qaeda is positioned in a region that the US cannot enter (without risking Pakistan’s stability – and nuclear arsenal) and that Pakistan’s leaders will not enter. If the pressure had been kept on the al Qaeda leadership, one wonders if we would have ended up here.
Juan Cole explains the difference between the guys in Afghanistan/Pakistan and the guys in Iraq:
“Al-Qaeda in Iraq” is of course just a bogeyman phrase to describe Salafi Jihadis there. But they obviously feel some kinship to the real al-Qaeda (you never want to see that) and they are threatening to get up an attack on the United States. There was no al-Qaeda in Saddam`s Iraq, so it is Bush who has created this current threat, which did not have to be there.
From being a single network of training camps and cells, al Qaeda has turned into a catch-all term. I wonder if it has to do with the fact that “al Qaeda” simply means “the base” in Arabic? It’s a wonderfully vague term that must sound vaguely menacing in its native tongue, even absent the baggage it has acquired in the past ten years or so. It’s also unique in not being laden with any very specific ideological connotations.
Seriously. What is al Qaeda? Is it an organization over which bin Laden exercises operational control? Is it the group that al Zarqawi spawned in Iraq? Are they the same thing? Is it any group of angry young men that blows things up (or attempts to) in the service of radical Sunni goals?
Whatever they are, they are supposedly on the rise. Given though that a coherent definition is lacking, how do we even know what is on the rise? Is al Qaeda whatever the National Intelligence Estimate says it is? If not, who defines it? It’s becoming so broad a term as to be nearly useless.
I guess this may be getting lost in the midst of the war on terror, but, uh, the terrorists of al Qaeda are doing better organization-wise than they have since 2001. The response of the West and NATO in general and the US in particular to terror threats in the first decade of the 21st century may long be studied as the textbook case of what NOT to do.
This stood out to me:
“Blaming every violent incident on the shadowy al-Qaida is a handy excuse for avoiding reality and responsibility. But it won’t change the fact that a good 20% of the world’s population is increasingly enraged at the US, Britain, Australia and, most lately, Canada. How can we hector the Muslim World to cease its acts of violence when we westerners continue to intensify our own?”
This is though one of those cases where the whole article is worth reading. Actually I’ve been meaning to pick up Margolis’ War at the Top of the World, if it’s anything like his columns, it’s probably worth reading.
According to a report on CBC tonight there are at least 39 US-held detainees for which there is no accounting. These are people that were taken into custody by the CIA and who have simply vanished. Considering what we know is happening to prisoners we know about, what is happening to the ghosts? On what basis were these people snatched off the street?
Think about what happened to Maher Arar, a man whose friend’s brother had signed a lease for some guys that were suspect, or something like that, he was sent to Syria. What is the utility of ghost detainees. I mean I’m sure that Al Qaeda or whoever they allegedly work for has noticed that they don’t show up to meetings or call or write much any more. I’m sure that they can surmise that the CIA is one of the likeliest groups to have picked up their people. So it’s not like this is some kind of security issue with protecting info from the bad guys.
And what about the people who are not bad guys, just in the wrong place at the wrong time? What legal protection do they have? None.
Disappearing people is a very dangerous sign and threat to any free society.