MULTIFACETED MEDIA GROUP
LINKSBlogs of War
Gunpowder & Lead
Long War Journal
Making Sense of Jihad
Views from the Occident
American Al Qaeda Members
News, analysis and primary source documents on terrorism, extremism and national security.
Thursday, April 22, 2004
Report: Secret Post-9/11 Mission Debunked Ramzi Yousef-Iraq Link
Shortly after September 11, the FBI helped investigate and disprove Laurie Mylroie's theory that Ramzi Yousef was an Iraqi intelligence agent using another man's identity, Newsweek reported Wednesday.
Performed at the insistence of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the investigation refuted one of Mylroie's primary claims, that Ramzi Yousef was an Iraqi intelligence officer, Newsweek said, sourcing the report to unnamed Justice Department officials.
A controversial academic reputed to have significant support within the Bush Administration, Mylroie claims Yousef was an Iraqi who switched identities with Abdul Basit, a Pakistani, after the invasion of Kuwait. Mylroie's theories and analysis of alleged Iraqi support for specific terrorist acts is known to have influenced Vice President Dick Cheney, and her opinions are thought to have influenced the administration's decision to go to war in Iraq.
Newsweek first reported about the investigation on April 5. In a story on Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies, the magazine reported that the White House had excised the story from Clarke's draft of the book, claiming that it dealt with classified information. The April 5 story cited Clarke as the source of the anecdote. The story published Wednesday featured original reporting by Newsweek on the investigation.
Mylroie has theorized that Iraq sponsored the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11 attack. There is very little evidence to support the idea that Iraq was a driving force in any of those attacks, although specific Iraqis may have played minor roles in some of them.
In the WTC 1993 and the September 11 attacks, the available evidence points to the broadest definition of the al Qaeda network, well within a reasonable doubt. The investigation into Oklahoma City was recently reopened by the FBI after the Associated Press uncovered evidence related to possible additional American conspirators. Some questions remain about possible involvement by al Qaeda operatives.
An Iraqi named Abdul Rahman Yasin was involved in the 1993 bombing and fled to Iraq after the attack. Vice President Dick Cheney has repeatedly charged that Saddam Hussein's regime sheltered Yasin and rewarded him for his role in the bombing. However, the BBC and CBS News reported in 2002 that Yasin had been arrested in 1994 and had been a prisoner of the Saddam regime since.
In 2003, Cheney said U.S. occupation forces had uncovered evidence that Hussein was sheltering Yasin, citing unspecified intelligence from seized Iraqi files. But unnamed sources told the Associated Press soon after that the material Cheney referenced was inconclusive, and the claim has not been repeated since.
Many investigators have used Mylroie's theories to buttress other claims that Iraq sponsored the Oklahoma City bombing. The very first allegation that Iraq was involved in OKC came from the government of Saudi Arabia, in a phone call made just hours after the attack.
According to Timothy McVeigh's defense attorney Stephen Jones, writing in Others Unknown, representatives of Saudi intelligence called Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA official, in the afternoon of April 19, 1995, with a claim that Iraqi intelligence agents in the U.S. were behind the attack. Cannistraro told Jones that he questioned the credibility of his source.
Jones wrote that he had hired Laurie Mylroie to consult for his defense team and that she had placed him in contact with Cannistraro.
Jones uncovered an FBI interrogation record which appeared to cite a second source who had also received a phone call from Saudi intelligence that day, and who said that Iraqi intelligence had sponsored the attack and that the attack had been assisted by "Afghani Freedom Fighters," a term which usually refers to terrorists linked to al Qaeda and its predecessor groups.
In December 2003, terrorism expert Peter Bergen wrote an article for Washington Monthly which further examines Mylroie's claims about Iraqi involvement in various terrorist plots and how her views shaped the U.S. drive to war in Iraq. Bergen, the respected author of Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden, was highly critical of the factual basis for Mylroie's views.
Tweets referencing this post:
Tuesday, April 20, 2004
New Section Added on OKC Bombing
AP Report Raises Specter of Dismissal in OKC Bombing Trial
INTELWIRE added a new section compiling investigative stories related to the Oklahoma City bombing on the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attack, while dramatic new developments in the investigation unfolded in Washington, D.C., and Oklahoma.
The OKC bombing may have been videotaped, according to a story by John Solomon at the Associated Press, which cited a never-before-disclosed document prepared by the Secret Service.
The document, which does not appear to have been released to defense attorneys for Terry Nichols or Timothy McVeigh as part of earlier discovery motions, described a surveillance tape of the truck used in the bombing and significantly described the tape as containing footage of multiple suspects (including convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh) exiting the truck just before it exploded.
Representatives of the Secret Service are expected to testify about the document this week, which they said had been given to federal prosecutors. The judge in the case has threatened to dismiss all murder charges against Nichols if he finds that the federal government has withheld evidence in the case.
The government has repeatedly insisted that McVeigh acted alone on the day of the bombing and repeatedly denied the existence of any surveillance video showing visible suspects in or around the truck.
Full Story from the Associated Press
View the Secret Service Document
INTELWIRE Reports on the OKC Bombing
Tweets referencing this post:
Friday, April 16, 2004
bin Laden Tape Has Clues on Qaeda Command Status, Leaders' Location
The release of a new tape from Osama bin Laden raises serious questions about U.S. and Pakistani claims to have disrupted al Qaeda's command-and-control structure.
The tape, which is believed to be authentic, is also indisputably recent. It contains references to the March 11 attack in Madrid, as well as the March 22 slaying of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of Hamas.
The tape was based on an audio recording, but distributed on video. While this may indicate that bin Laden lacks video capacity on site, it may also represent a strategic choice to avoid revealing location clues. In early March, it was reported that a rare shrub spotted on a bin Laden video had sparked a manhunt in the Afghan-Pakistan border region where the shrub grows. (The veracity of this report has been called into question.)
The tape (full text) also contains several references to Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush:
Had he (Bush) been truthful about his claim for peace, he would not describe the person who ripped open pregnant women in Sabra and Shatila (Sharon) and the destroyer of the capitulation process (Palestinian peace process) as a man of peace.The dating of the reference isn't clear, but the timing of the release of the tape is extremely clear. It came just 24 hours after Bush endorsed an extremely controversial Israeli initiative to disengage with the Palestinians and retain its disputed claim to Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
"(The endorsement) undermines hope for a just and comprehensive peace, inflames feelings of enmity toward America and opens the door toward retaking these (Palestinian) rights by force, through all legitimate means of resistance," President Emile Lahoud of Lebanon was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.
bin Laden's tape arrived just as Arab leaders were firing the opening verbal salvos over the Sharon initiative. The net effect was that normally moderate Arab leaders were making speeches that sounded more extreme than usual, while bin Laden issued a speech that struck a conciliatory note and focused closely on Palestinian issues. The end result is that bin Laden has in a single stroke subtly realigned himself with the mainstream of the Arab world.
The most important question is whether the message was intended that way. If the bin Laden tape was recorded after the Sharon reaffirmed the initiative on April 13, before leaving for the U.S., that means bin Laden where ever he may be is capable of moving a sophisticated tape from recording to wide distribution within a matter of mere days not much slower than Bush can stage a national press conference.
At the latest, certainly, the tape was recorded after the killing of Yassin on March 22, which may have been the impetus for its creation. The tape was distributed in three versions, one in Arabic, one with English subtitles and one with German subtitles.
Such capacity indicates that bin Laden may retain direct control over al Qaeda, and that the organization's command-and-control capacity may not be nearly as decimated as the U.S. and its allies have repeatedly suggested.
Last month, Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf told ABC News that bin Laden and top deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri were no longer in "operational control" of al Qaeda. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, responding to those comments a few days later, said "If one is thinking of highly centralized organization, single organization, where instructions go down, and they're obeyed, I think that's not likely. I think there's too much pressure on them." (It's not at all clear that al Qaeda was organized along such lines to begin with.)
At the very least, bin Laden is obviously able to transmit messages and orders to his operatives. He has knowledge of current events, as the tape's content demonstrates. If information is moving both to and from bin Laden, then command-and-control capacity exists. If the tape was produced within the last week, then command-and-control may be operating at nearly the same levels as they were before 9/11.
In the past, bin Laden and Zawahiri appear to have exercised command-and-control over al Qaeda activities largely (but not exclusively) through personal visits, face-to-face meetings and third-party emissaries. The first two options especially have been limited by U.S. and Pakistani operations along the Afghan border, unless the two leaders have left the area. Even in that case, the requirement for secrecy about their whereabouts will continue to be limiting.
Theological and political pronouncements continue to be distributed through privately published books, CD-ROMs, Web sites and the mass media. These include taped messages, written fatwas and other tracts. These methods do not appear to have been significantly impacted by Western efforts.
Top al Qaeda lieutenants used letters, faxes, phone calls and the Internet to give instructions to field operatives. These operations have evolved after 9/11, due to infrastructure disruption, the destruction of numerous base camps and a intense intelligence effort focused on technological tracking. None of these communication routes appear to have been entirely closed off.
It's very likely that bin Laden and al Qaeda's inner circle have begun using some courier and electronic communications for command-and-control functions, but little intelligence has reached the public on this front. The use of key, trusted emissaries has likely taken on paramount importance and may be the most vulnerable spot in the system.
In order to gather more intelligence about how command/control functions are now being handled, intelligence services first need to get a fix on bin Laden's general location, a crucial question potentially complicated by the new tape's content.
Given the amount of military activity around the Pakistan-Afghan border, it's unclear whether bin Laden could safely move a tape out from that area within a few short days. A Zawahiri audio tape released in March also referenced news events that had occured just days before its release.
If the tape is indeed authentic, and if it was produced within the last week, the question then becomes: Are bin Laden and Zawahiri really still in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border regions where troops are hunting them? If they are, how can they produce and distribute their messages with such impunity? And if they are not, where are they?
Tweets referencing this post:
Tuesday, April 13, 2004
Ashcroft Slams 9/11 Commission By Declassifying Panelist's 1995 Memo
UPDATE (4/14): House Leader Calls For Gorelick Resignation
Attorney General John Ashcroft fired a sharp attack at the independent commission investigating the September 11 attacks by unexpectedly declassifying a memo authored by a commission member, once again throwing the spotlight on conflicts of interest among members of the supposedly impartial panel.
While the media spotlight Tuesday focused on the day's extensive criticism of Ashcroft, the Bush Justice Department and the FBI, Ashcroft read excerpts from a newly declassified memo authored by commission member Jamie Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general with the Clinton Administration. According to Ashcroft, the memo illustrated the bureaucratic and legal obstacles faced by the Justice Department operating under guidelines written by the Clinton Administration.
According to Ashcroft, the memo illustrated the bureaucratic and legal obstacles faced by the Justice Department operating under guidelines written by the Clinton Administration.
The memo was given to the panel after Ashcroft's opening remarks. Ashcroft declassified the memo specifically for the occasion of his testimony and described its contents in his opening remarks, as part of a detailed attack on Clinton administration policies on counterterrorism and law enforcement.
Previous complaints about conflicts of interest have dogged the commission. Families of the September 11 victims have complained about Philip Zelikow, the commission's executive director, who received briefings on al Qaeda as a member of the Bush Administration and who co-authored a 1995 book with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Gorelick has also been a lightning rod for criticism on the basis of such conflicts. As deputy attorney general under Janet Reno, Gorelick recused herself from questioning Reno after her testimony earlier Tuesday. Gorelick did not recuse herself from questioning Ashcroft after the disclosure of the memo. The panel largely ignored the memo during the hearing.
"The basic architecture for the wall in the 1995 Guidelines was contained in a classified memorandum entitled 'Instructions on Separation of Certain Foreign Counterintelligence and Criminal Investigations,' " Ashcroft testified.
"The memorandum ordered FBI Director Louis Freeh and others, quote: 'We believe that it is prudent to establish a set of instructions that will more clearly separate the counterintelligence investigation from the more limited, but continued, criminal investigations,' " Ashcroft's prepared testimony continued. " 'These procedures, which go beyond what is legally required, will prevent any risk of creating an unwarranted appearance that FISA is being used to avoid procedural safeguards which would apply in a criminal investigation.' "
Ashcroft's prepared testimony continued: "This memorandum established a wall separating the criminal and intelligence investigations following the 1993 World Trade Center attack, the largest international terrorism attack on American soil prior to September 11.Although you understand the debilitating impact of the wall, I cannot imagine that the Commission knew about this memorandum, so I have declassified it for you and the public to review. Full disclosure compels me to inform you that its author is a member of this Commission."
While the disclosure did highlight one of several conflicts of interest that the 9/11 Commission faces, it also shed light on a badly constructed government system of national security classifications, in which hundreds of thousands of pages of material are restricted every year. Though these restrictions are made purportedly on the basis of national security, material is frequently disclosed when deemed politically expedient and classified when deemed politically damaging, allowing abuses of the system while simultaneously concealing the existence of the abuse itself.
Neither the Gorelick memo disclosed today, nor the Aug. 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Briefing disclosed over the weekend appear to contain material that was justifiably denied to the public even using an extremely generous definition of the national interest. No harm has apparently been done to the nation by either disclosure, however there are very clear political motivations which could and did dictate the circumstances of their disclosure.
Ironically, while excerpts read in the session sounded damaging, the memo taken as a whole seems to emphasize counterintelligence and the prevention of terrorist attacks over simple prosecution, which could be read as undercutting one of the most frequent criticisms of both the Bush and Clinton administrations prior to September 11.
Tweets referencing this post:
Monday, April 12, 2004
bin Laden Brother-in-Law Khalifa Moves To Be Dropped From 9/11 Suit
Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, a brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden, has filed a motion to have his name removed from a lawsuit seeking damages for the September 11 attack.
Khalifa is one of more than 200 co-defendants named in a suit filed by law firm Motley Rice on behalf of more than 500 families of people killed in the September 11 attack. The lawsuit seeks redress from individuals suspected of financially supporting terrorism and al Qaeda, many of whom are Saudi businessmen like Khalifa.
According to the U.S. and Philippines governments, Khalifa acted as a major financier of al Qaeda during the 1990s, moving funds and resources around the country on behalf of al Qaeda and bin Laden, whose sister is married to Khalifa.
However in several media interviews and court cases, Khalifa has consistently and vocally denied any link to terrorism and any wrongdoing whatsoever. Khalifa, who lives freely in Saudi Arabia, was temporarily detained by the Saudi government after the September 11 attack and has publicly condemned bin Laden since being released. He repeated these claims in the new filing, which seeks to remove his name from the list of defendants.
Around the late 1980s or early 1990s, Khalifa founded the Philippines branch of the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), which has been designated a terrorist financing organization by the United States and other countries.
In numerous U.S. court filings and several Philippines investigative documents, Khalifa has been specifically and repeatedly accused of financing and otherwise assisting terrorist activities in the Philippines, where he is suspected of funneling al Qaeda funds to the Abu Sayyaf Group in the southern Philippines through IIRO and other business and charitable fronts.
INTELWIRE has reviewed hundreds of pages of U.S. criminal, civil and immigration court documents relating to Khalifa. Additionally, some formerly classified Philippines investigative documents have been provided to INTELWIRE by Motley Rice. Some, but not all, of the claims in these various documents have been independently verified.
The Philippines documents have provided the basis for almost all major media reports concerning Khalifa's ties to al Qaeda and Abu Sayyaf, but other links have been uncovered in court filings related to Chicago's Benevolence International Foundation, a 1995 civil court case in which Khalifa sued the U.S. government, INS reports, contemporary media reports of Khalifa's INS proceedings, and material related to a 1996 prosecution of Ramzi Yousef and Abdul Hakim Murad.
Furthermore, according to a list published by the Jewish Defense Organization, Khalifa (along with bin Laden) was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in an al Qaeda-linked plot to blow up New York City landmarks in 1993.
According to the new filing, "Khalifa has absolutely no connection with the tragic events of September 11, 2001, nor does he support those that brought them about." The filing also argues that the suit has no jurisdiction to reach Khalifa due to Khalifa's minimal connection to the United States.
An attached affadavit repeats this claim, further asserting that Khalifa has visited the United States twice, once "during the eighties" and once in 1994. At the conclusion of the 1994 visit, Khalifa was detained by the INS for nearly six months. (See INS Deported Mohammed Jamal Khalifa Just Days After Oklahoma Bombing; Gov't Returned Evidence, Erased Charges.)
In his filing, Khalifa argues that the charges leveled by Motley Rice in its amended complaint (PDF) are "completely without merit," but does not specifically address what it claims are "factual errors" in the complaint. The motion focuses primarily on issues having to do with jurisdiction.
Khalifa's motion was filed in the Southern District of New York on April 10.
Tweets referencing this post:
Sunday, April 11, 2004
Full Text: Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in USThis is the full text of the Aug. 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Briefing on al Qaeda:
Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US
Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate Bin Ladin since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the U.S. Bin Ladin implied in US television interviews in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and "bring the fighting to America."
After US missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, Bin Ladin told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington, according to [redacted by White House] service.
An Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative told an [redacted by White House] service at the same time that Bin Ladin was planning to exploit the operative's access to the US to mount a terrorist strike.
The millennium plotting in Canada in 1999 may have been part of Bin Ladin's first serious attempt to implement a terrorist strike in the US. Convicted plotter Ahmed Ressam has told the FBI that he conceived the idea to attack Los Angeles International Airport himself, but that Bin Ladin lieutenant Abu Zubaydah encouraged him and helped facilitate the operation. Ressam also said that in 1998 Abu Zubaydah was planning his own US attack.
Ressam says Bin Ladin was aware of the Los Angeles operation.
Although Bin Ladin has not succeeded, his attacks against the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 demonstrate that he prepares operations years in advance and is not deterred by setbacks. Bin Ladin associates surveilled our Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as early as 1993, and some members of the Nairobi cell planning the bombings were arrested and deported in 1997.
Al-Qa'ida members - including some who are US citizens - have resided in or traveled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks. Two al-Qa'ida members found guilty in the conspiracy to bomb our Embassies in East Africa were US citizens, and a senior EIJ member lived in California in the mid-1990s.
A clandestine source said in 1998 that a Bin Ladin cell in New York was recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks.
We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a [redacted by White House] service in 1998 saying that Bin Ladin wanted to hijack a US aircraft to gain the release of "Blind Shaykh" 'Umar 'Abd al-Rahman and other US-held extremists.
Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.
The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the US that it considers Bin Ladin-related. CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our Embassy in UAE in May saying that a group of Bin Ladin supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives.
Tweets referencing this post:
Thursday, April 8, 2004
FBI Informant Tipped Authorities About Airplane Crash Plot In 1993
INTELWIRE Exclusive: Report Of Planned Embassy Attack, Though Never Attempted, Was One More Warning Missed Before 9/11
In spring 1993, an FBI informant uncovered an al Qaeda-linked plan to crash an airplane into the U.S. embassy in Cairo.
In testimony little noted during a 1995 court case, FBI informant Emad Salem testified that a Sudanese national, Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali, asked him to assist a plot in which a Sudanese Air Force pilot would first bomb the home of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarek from his airplane then crash the plane into the American Embassy.
While it appears the plot never advanced past the discussion stage, the incident is yet another case in which the U.S. government had specific information that terrorists were planning to use an airplane as a missile.
According to Salem, an informant integral to FBI efforts to crack a New York terror cell in 1993, Siddig Ali asked Salem to help the alleged pilot find "gaps in the air defense in Egypt so he can drive to bomb the presidential house, and then turn around, crash the plane into the American embassy after he eject himself out of the plane (...) ."
Salem was also asked to assist the pilot in escaping. Salem testified that he informed his contacts in the Egyptian government of the threat.
Abdo Haggag, an Egyptian spy testifying on behalf of the U.S. government, told the court the alleged pilot received a fatwa from radical Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman approving the operation as early as 1992.
The alleged pilot was not arrested or charged when the rest of Rahman-linked New York City cell was apprehended in June 1993, and it's not clear whether the plot had any credible basis. The NYC cell had numerous links to al Qaeda and is now believed to have been an al Qaeda operation.
It's not clear where the alleged pilot lives now, and it's also unclear if the allegations made in court had any basis in fact. Defense lawyers during the trial claimed the supposed pilot was a U.S. cab driver and that the plot was fanciful.
Ramzi Yousef, who was extensively linked to the NYC cell, also planned to crash an airplane into CIA headquarters, as part of Project Bojinka, a plot he was preparing to execute in the Philippines in 1994 and 1995 before his hideout was exposed to the authorities.
The case is US v Omar Abdel Rahman, et al, S5 93 Cr. 181 (MBM), testimony of Emad Salem, March 21, 1995.
Tweets referencing this post:
Wednesday, April 7, 2004
The Cult of Impersonality
In The War On Terrorism, The U.S. Must Look Beyond Individuals
Just before a widespread uprising broke out in Iraq Tuesday, President Bush commented about the influence of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
"In this particular incident, with Sadr, this is one person who is deciding that rather than allow democracy to flourish, he's going to exercise force," the president said. "And we just can't let it stand."
The comment highlights a recurring strategy problem in the Bush administration's approach to the War on Terrorism, which extends into relationships in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the rest of Middle East: The reduction of complex conflicts into simple personality conflicts revolving around binary issues (i.e., good vs. evil, or rational vs. irrational).
The tendency is well-documented. On Sept. 17, 2001, Bush made his now famous comments about catching Osama bin Laden "dead or alive."
In May and June 2003, administration officials began to claim that half of al Qaeda's leadership had been captured or killed, although it was far from clear what that statement was intended to mean. By February 2004, that figure climbed to "two-thirds."
In September 2003, Bush told CBS News he keeps pictures of the top al Qaeda leaders in his desk, including bin Laden, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Mohammed Atef, and others. Bush told CBS that he marks off the pictures as the leaders are captured or killed.
In Iraq, a similar dynamic played out with Saddam Hussein, especially after the factual rationales for the invasion broke down. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney reverted to metaphors for personal conflict: The world was "better off" without Saddam Hussein in power.
Again, this week, the problem in Iraq has devolved to "one man," who is portrayed as being simply and irrationally "against democracy."
"This is a person, and followers, who are trying to say, we don't want democracy," Bush said Monday. The corresponding implication is perhaps obvious, that Iraqis could not be harboring any legitimate grievances regarding the coalition.
MEASURING PROGRESS IN TERROR WAR
Outside the Iraqi theater, the focus on individuals creates a markedly distorted view of how al Qaeda works and inhibits any effective evaluation of how the War on Terror is progressing.
For example, the 3/11 attack in Madrid was a major operation that was likely already started by the time Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was arrested in March 2003. While a significant development in many respects, KSM's arrest did not measurably inhibit the operational ability of al Qaeda and linked groups to execute terrorist attacks beyond a window of several weeks after his apprehension.
While capturing bin Laden or Zawahiri would be a much-needed public relations boon for the U.S. at this stage in the war, such an event would not necessarily have an operational effect in terms of inhibiting future activity by al Qaeda.
It's always desirable to take competent enemy warriors off the playing board (especially an operational fighter and strategist like Zawahiri), but neither man exercises the same type of control within the al Qaeda movement that Western leaders exercise over their nations.
The problem is amply illustrated in Southeast Asia, where al Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiah is emerging from just such a crisis. With the arrest of JI ideological leader Abu Bak'r Bashir and the capture of JI operational leader Hambali, the terror network suffered a loss that directly corresponds to what al Qaeda would experience if bin Laden and Zawahiri were both caught.
At most, JI appears to have suffered a modest setback after the arrests. Certainly, the effect of removing the top two figures in the organization has been far different from the effect of removing a head of state. The structure and cohesiveness of JI remain largely intact. It retains an ability to stage attacks, and it continues to rebuild its capabilities after a series of significant arrests and setbacks.
The focus on individuals isn't just a strategic problem on the field of battle.
Bush's political style is one of personal connection, and Bush camp insiders have long said that the president is at his best in personal encounters, rather than in political forums. Prior to September 11, this was actually considered to be an asset.
But the War on Terrorism, and the corollary conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, are not best understood within the framework of individual dynamics. The administration's insistence on portraying conflicts in terms of competition between individuals is not simply academic. It pervades U.S. policy and the prosecution of the War on Terror.
After the arrest of al Qaeda lieutenant Ramzi Binalshibh in October 2002, Bush was explict in outlining his strategy against al Qaeda.
"The only way to measure success against this part of the war against terror is to hunt them down one at a time. A man named (Binalshibh) popped his head up the other day. He's no longer a problem to America," said Bush. "It's a different kind of war. You might think about it as an international manhunt."
He reiterated this view after the arrest of KSM.
"I told the American people this is a different kind of war against al Qaeda, that we're just going to have to hunt them down one at a time," he said in March 2003, as quoted by the Copley News Service. "And over the weekend, they saw what I meant. We will continue to hunt them down one at a time (...) and will do so until al Qaeda is completely dismantled."
The premise hinges on the individual significance of al Qaeda leaders and the idea that these individuals have qualities which are irreplaceable, to a greater or lesser extent.
If al Qaeda were organized along the lines of a pyramidal hierarchy, there might be some merit to this approach. But Qaeda's core operation is more properly viewed as being organized in concentric circles. When you remove an individual from the inner circle, the outer circles condense inward to fill the void.
The strategic issue extends well beyond the government's view of al Qaeda. In some cases, Bush's personal connection (or conflict) with individuals in other governments has the potential to overshadow serious policy issues, such as in the president's close family friendship with Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S.
In other cases, such as the rise of Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq, urgent U.S. policy concerns are obscured or completely ignored in favor of the reflexive identification of specific individuals as the cause of extremely broad societal dynamics.
"This is one person; this is a person, and followers, who are trying to say, we don't want democracy," Bush explains, and that explanation becomes the official position of the U.S. government.
But there are deep and difficult issues at work in Iraq, some a result of Western intervention and others stemming from decades or centuries of infighting among sectarian groups in the region. An exclusive focus on an individual leader denies the underlying problem. Even if the administration is addressing the problem internally, such comments send a public message (particularly in the Arab world) that the U.S. does not -- and will not in the future -- understand problems in the Middle East.
In the Information Age, leaders are more often born from circumstance than from natural aptitude. In other words, a figure like al-Sadr (or Bush for that matter) develops as a reflection of his followers than spontaneously emerging as a galvanizing figure (although once in a position of power, he certainly is able to exercise influence for good or for ill). The primary quality of a 21st century leader is his or her ability to respond to the public trends that now drive virtually all global activity.
By interpreting world affairs as the actions of a series of misguided or irrational individuals (bin Laden, Mullah Omar, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Saddam Hussein, al-Sadr), U.S. policymakers can ignore the often inflammatory effect that U.S. foreign policy has in other nations.
Regardless of whether those policies are ultimately judged to be right or wrong, the inflammatory effect is what empowers terrorist groups to recruit new members and raise funds. Terrorist organizations and civil insurgencies (as in Iraq) arise from group dynamics and a specific societal backdrop.
Individuals are important in this equation, but they are a much smaller part of the overall picture than U.S. rhetoric suggests. To win the war, the U.S. needs to stop looking at the trees and start seeing the forest.
The current enemies of the United States are not motivated primarily by charismatic personalities, and "decapitation" is not an effective strategy against them. Any attempt to significantly deter terrorism must attack the problem from an organizational standpoint, or it will fail.
This analysis can be commissioned in an expanded format, with interviews and additional supporting material, at magazine length or as a research paper. The expanded version also explores the issue of moral value judgments in the context of when and why individuals named as enemies of U.S. policy. Contact J.M. Berger for details.
Tweets referencing this post:
Book: Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam (Reviews)
E-Book: Beatings and Bureaucracy: The Founding Memos of Al Qaeda
E-Book: Interview online jihadist Abu Suleiman Al Nasser (Abridged)
JIHAD JOEJihad Joe: Americans Who Go To War In The Name Of Islam, the new book by INTELWIRE's J.M. Berger, is now available in both Kindle and hardcover editions. Order today!
Jihad Joe is the first comprehensive history of the American jihadist movement, from 1979 through the present. Click here to read more about the critical acclaim Jihad Joe has earned so far, including from the New York Times, Publisher's Weekly, Redstate.com and many more.
Radicalization, Informants and More Difficult Ques...
AQ vs. IS: Fractures Chart Update
IS Backlash Spills Over on Jabhat al Nusra
In the Future, All Your Leaders Will Be Empty Suit...
The State of the 'Caliphate' Is... Meh
Gambling on the Caliphate
Following the Money Men
On Extremism and Statecraft
A New Day for ISIS
Al Qaeda Fractures Update and Google Hangout
New York Pipe Bomb Suspect Linked to Revolution Muslim
The Utility of Lone Wolves
Interview with Online Jihadist Abu Suleiman Al Nasser
A Way Forward for CVE: The Five Ds
How Terrorists Use The Internet: Just Like You
PATCON: The FBI's Secret War on the Militia Movement
Interview About Jihad With Controversial Cleric Bilal Philips
Forgeries on the Jihadist Forums
U.S. Gave Millions To Charity Linked To Al Qaeda, Anwar Awlaki
State Department Secretly Met With Followers of Blind Sheikh
State Department Put 'Political Pressure' On FBI To Deport Brother-in-Law Of Osama Bin Laden In 1995
FBI Records Reveal Details Of Nixon-Era Racial Profiling Program Targeting Arabs
Gaza Flotilla Official Was Foreign Fighter in Bosnia War
U.S. Had 'High Confidence' Of UBL Attack In June 2001
Behind the Handshake: The Rumsfeld-Saddam Meeting