Outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush has said one of his main accomplishments had been keeping terror groups from carrying out another strike on U.S. soil.
But what if the big leaguers, al Qaeda, weren’t really trying in that period? What if it’s been waiting for a time more to its strategic advantage? What if that time is coming?
Columnist Gwynne Dyer explains the theory of the “South Waziristan Institute for Strategic Hermeneutics,” or SWISH.
Unfortunately, the South Waziristan Institute for Strategic Hermeneutics only exists in the fertile brain of British academic and strategic analyst Paul Rogers, who publishes its reports on the website of Open Democracy. Moreover, the Obama transition team did not ask for this report, although one devoutly hopes that they read it. Because the prediction is quite serious, as is all of SWISH’s work.
The SWISH phenomenon began as a one-man attempt to educate Western analysts in the thinking of their Islamist enemies. The reports mimicked the format used by consultants in the various Washington think-tanks that advise the US government and the Pentagon on strategic matters, but they came from the mythical South Waziristan Institute, which had supposedly been hired by the leadership of al-Qaeda to provide a similar service for them. …
While your average Beltway bandit treated the al-Qaeda leaders as a bunch of “mad mullahs” driven only by unreasoning hatred, Paul Rogers assumed (quite correctly) that they were intelligent people with coherent long-term strategies.
In particular, he assumed that a primary purpose of the 9/11 attacks was to sucker the United States into invading Afghanistan (and, if possible, other Muslim countries), as that would radicalise Muslim populations and generate waves of recruits for bin Laden’s organisation. Once Bush did that, he was al-Qaeda’s man, and its main interest was keeping him in power. So, no more attacks on the US between September, 2001 and January, 2009.
This is not rocket science. Long-time readers of this column will recall that I have repeatedly predicted no further al-Qaeda attacks on the United States on exactly the same logic. Why would al-Qaeda risk a backlash against Bush when everything is going so well?
American analysts are very resistant to the notion that their country could be a pawn in somebody else’s strategy, but gradually this perspective has been making headway. I shared a platform with former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge a couple of years ago, and he was willing to concede that his success in “preventing” further al-Qaeda attacks after 9/11 might have been due to the fact that they weren’t actually planning any.
But by the same token, Obama’s arrival in power may make a new 9/11 desirable. While he is certainly not proposing a U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan or even a complete troop withdrawal from Iraq, he seems less persuaded than Bush that invading and occupying Muslim countries is a good idea. Moreover, he intends to end the torture and abuse of (overwhelmingly Muslim) prisoners.
So if there is any way that al-Qaeda can organise a major attack on US soil in the coming twelve to eighteen months, they will do it. These are not stupid people, and their main goal now must be to stampede the American public back into the fearful mind-set that allowed Bush to launch his wars in the first place, and hope that Obama will be swept along by it.
One reason why al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack succeeded is because the U.S. national security establishment was incompetent.
Five of the 19 hijackers were already on terror watch lists – and they got on the planes.
Remember the FBI agent in Arizona trying to tell his superiors that he had some Muslims who wanted to learn how to fly passenger jets — but not land them?
The CIA didn’t tell the FBI when two key hijackers arrived on U.S. soil. A key FBI anti-terror agent puked after he learned that.
And there’s the famous Aug. 6, 2001 presidential daily briefing memo with the cryptic headline “Bin Ladin determined to strike in U.S.” — which warned of patterns of activity consistent with a lead-up to an attack.
The U.S. has spent a small fortune upgrading its security infrastructure and practices since 9/11, but the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States found the main failing was “one of imagination.”
Al Qaeda has been patient and creative in the past; presumably they will be so in the future. They might come up with another plan that will exploit another “failure of imagination” (yo spooks: Read Tom Clancy).
From what I’ve read, al Qaeda has two main criteria:
1. The attack must not fail
2. It must be more spectacular than the last (think of bin Laden as a movie producer)
In 2007, the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate reportedly found that al Qaeda’s operational capability was back at pre-9/11 levels, so despite the “war on terror,” it would seem al Qaeda remains resilient.
Check this out from an Aug. 12, 2008 NYT story:
Al Qaeda is more capable of attacking inside the United States than it was last year, and its cadre of senior leaders has recruited and trained “dozens” of militants capable of blending into Western society to carry out attacks, the analyst (Ted Gistaro) said.
But in late 2008, one forecast suggested that al Qaeda might be in a trough with respects to popularity in the Muslim world. From the Nov. 23, 2008 NYT:
A new study of the global future by American intelligence agencies suggests that Al Qaeda could soon be on the decline, having alienated Muslim supporters with indiscriminate killing and inattention to the practical problems of poverty, unemployment and education.
While not contradicting intelligence assessments suggesting that Al Qaeda remains a major threat with a strong presence in the tribal areas of Pakistan, the report says that the group “may decay sooner” than many experts have assumed because of severe weaknesses: “unachievable strategic objectives, inability to attract broad-based support and self-destructive actions.”
“The appeal of terrorism is waning,” said Mathew J. Burrows, head of long-range analysis in the office of the director of national intelligence and a lead author of “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World.” Mr. Burrows said polls and anecdotal evidence strongly suggested disillusionment among Muslims with Al Qaeda and its methods and goals since the 2001 terrorist attacks. …
The Global Trends reports are produced every four years by the National Intelligence Council, which represents all 16 American intelligence agencies, in part to inform long-term thinking by new administrations. The reports project various possible sequences of events in the future; the new publication notes, between dire forecasts, that “bad outcomes are not inevitable.”
Even if Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups gradually lose support, the remaining violent extremists may have access to increasingly lethal technology, including biological weapons, the report found.
The comments on Al Qaeda’s future are based in part on the work of David C. Rapoport, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied the cycles of terrorist activity in the past, including those associated with anarchism, Marxism and nationalism.
The report said the global Islamic terrorist movement was likely to outlast Al Qaeda itself, with other groups likely to emerge and supplant it. But it expects a future of frustration and attrition for Al Qaeda, which Osama bin Laden built during the 1990s.
“Al Qaeda has not achieved broad support in the Islamic world,” the report said. “Its harsh pan-Islamist ideology and policies appeal only to a tiny minority of Muslims.”
If you haven’t seen them, Lawrence Wright’s remarks on Why al Qaeda can’t win (he’s the author of The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the road to 9/11) are worth checking out.
I guess the big question is whether al Qaeda sees another major terror strike as key to advancing its objectives and help it regain support within the Muslim world — or alternatively, if it’s prepared to go down fighting.
And if it does, the next big question is, how does Obama respond?