Thursday, July 31, 2003

Al-Qaeda's Silence?

Matt Bruce has been blogging about the lack of al-Qaeda activity since September 11, in this case by linking to this Lee Harris article about how al-Qaeda's silence is affecting the psychology of the War on Terror.

I've seen comments like this in a lot of places, and I think there're a couple of things wrong with where they're coming from. First of all, much is being made of the fact that there has been no major al-Qaeda attack since September 11. However, there were also no major terrorist attacks before September 11. That did not mean al-Qaeda was not a danger, or that they were on the run in the war they had already declared against the interests of predominantly Christian and Jewish nations in the Islamic world. Second, there has been a fair degree of al-Qaeda activity around the world, ranging from the Bali bombing which now looks al-Qaeda-related to fighting in Afghanistan to the bombings in Riyadh and Casablanca and lots of smaller things. From al-Qaeda's perspective, these are not remote and indignificant - they are close to home in areas where the members are seeking to effect the real changes they seek.

I think something needs to be said here about the nature of al-Qaeda. I'm far from a terrorism expert, but I remain far from convinced it is a tightly run terrorism ring in which a small group of leaders thinks up evil plots and gets their card-carrying members to carry them out. One friend who's looked at this in a little more detail says they remind him of a sort of grant foundation for terrorists: They have issued a call to war, and if you answer it and have a plan, they'll give you some money to carry it out, possibly with advice and logistical support. Another point which has always been in the back of my mind: My first year in grad school, I did a bit of work on Lebanese Shi'ite groups, and found that often they tended to be banners as much as real organizations. People would say they were with Amal if they agreed with their program and methods, rather than if they had gone down to the local Amal office and joined. Ages ago I mentioned a group called al-Muwahhidun, which claimed to be a new al-Qaeda-affiliated terror group operating in the Gulf. In the Kurdish region of Iraq, there was a training camp for a group called Ansar al-Islam which is kind of al-Qaeda and kind of not, as I read the analyses. A while back there was also a claim of responsibility for some attacks in Iraq from an al-Qaeda chapter there. I read that as a group of people saying, "We're with them," not a central al-Qaeda leadership moving into new areas.

The above isn't a clear description of what I think al-Qaeda is because I don't know for sure what it is. In fact, what I've done is little more than brain-storming. However, these are the sorts of models in my mind when I think about terrorist groups. It also suggests something else: There may or may not be much central strategy behind al-Qaeda's terrorism. If not, the silence here on the American front may not have the strategic significance some are giving it, and could end at any time.


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