Friday, September 09, 2011

The Importance of Training Camps

Over the past couple of years, I've noticed a trend of people pointing to terrorist plots hatched in, for example, Europe as evidence that "safe havens" for terrorist groups do not matter. In his monograph Jihad in Saudi Arabia, Thomas Hegghammer comes to a different conclusion:
"The arguably most important lesson from the history of al-Qaida is that unhampered access to territory can dramatically increase a terrorist group's military capability. For a start, the safe haven allowed al-Qaida to quietly plan operations on its own schedule with virtually no outside interference. Moreover, it allowed Bin Laden to build a core organisation with a relatively high degree of bureaucratisation and functional task division, which in turn improved organisational efficiency. Most important of all, territorial access enabled Bin Laden to set up an elaborate military educational system, the like of which has never been seen in the hands of a transnational terrorist organisation with such a radical agenda. This infrastructure - or "University of Global Jihadism" - greatly improved al-Qaida's ability to operationalise recruits. The training camps are also key to understanding the characteristic organisational unity of al-Qaida, namely the simultaneous existence of a hierarchical and bureaucratic core and a much larger and looser network of camp alumni.

"Beyond increasing the recruits' paramilitary expertise, the camps constituted an arena for social processes that improved al-Qaida's operational capability. Many of these processes imitated those cultivated by professional military organisations. Instructors first of all sought to desensitise the recruits through intensive weapons practice and through the promotion of an ultra-masculine and weapons-fixated camp culture. Moreover, the hardship of camp life made recruits forge strong personal relationships, thus building the deep internal loyalty and trust needed for long-winded operations such as the 9/11 attacks. Finally the 'graduates' of these camps were imbued with self-confidence and a sense of being part of a vanguard, which turned many into leading or entrepreneurial figures in the militant communities in their home countries. In addition to these social processes came the ideological indoctrination into global jihadism. Recruits were exposed to lectures and writings of global jihadi ideologues. Instructors also encouraged anti-American statements within the camps, leading recruits to try to rhetorically outdo one another. On the whole, the alumni from these training camps were more brutal, more bound together and more anti-Western than most of their peers."

Some context for the second paragraph is provided by Hegghammer's prosopographical study of 197 al-Qaida recruits from Saudi Arabia. Almost all of them travelled to Afghanistan intending to fight in prominent limited conflicts such as that in Chechnya and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Only in the training camps in Afghanistan did some start becoming committed to the al-Qaida vision of a global campaign against the United States or socially recruited into other agendas. The fact that deception about al-Qaida's actual agenda was involved, not only in fundraising, but recruitment, leads me to hate al-Qaida even more now than I did this morning.

I suspect suspicion about the "safe haven" idea results from skepticism about American policy into Afghanistan bleeding over into one of the primary rationales for our involvement there. I do not, however, draw from the work of Hegghammer and others whom I have read any especially militant conclusions. Specifically, it seems clear that al-Qaida and the Taliban themselves had different agendas, and that many within the Taliban were not keen on harboring Bin Laden's state within a state. This is, in fact, why he ordered the assassination of the Taliban's arch-rival Ahmad Shah Massoud ten years ago today. In addition, while it seems common sense that trained terrorists are more capable of inflicting harm than untrained ones, the point about drawing recruits into Bin Ladenism seems irrelevant now that everyone can clearly see what it is. I haven't closely followed the war in Afghanistan for several years, but given my sense of the situation on the ground, I would not be averse to a withdrawal that involved some elements of the Taliban gaining some measure of political power in the country, along with a sufficient intelligence presence to be aware of and a willingness to act against any new "training camps" that were sufficiently threatening to U.S.'s national interests.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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