29 September 2007

Terrorism: the good, the bad and the ugly

I do enjoy Mr. Robison's posts on the state of al Qaeda! And his latest at American Thinker, A Quiet Triumph May be Brewing, is no exception, and I deeply thank him for sharing his knowledge and background with us, so that we can gain some insight into what the media and punditry is, in general, missing.

Mr. Robison's articles are some of the most informative analysis I have seen on the topic of the coherency of al Qaeda as an organization and address much in the way of the smaller, support organizations that are necessary to make al Qaeda effective. That is part of the 'affiliate network' that many saw al Qaeda bringing closer to centralized operations just prior to and after 9/11. Clearly that network of affiliates has shifted emphasis away from the central portion of al Qaeda, and that portion has lost nearly all of its old mujahideen based knowledge. As we see younger and younger operatives appearing in higher positions of authority after older operatives are removed (either via arrest or direct attack) the actual knowledge basis for controlling and coordinating high level attacks is disintegrating. In my review of Mr. Robison's previous article I looked at that and the cost of actually having a trained terrorist operation, even on the 'shoe-string' basis that al Qaeda works on.

While Mr. Robison concentrates on the higher level phenomena, I also tend to see the local conditions as guiding to actions and activity: multiple operations from separate sources of activity can coalesce into a direction without higher level guidance. This differences in viewpoint do offer different spectra that can often be recombined to come to a larger understanding of the events in question. I will say that no matter what the actual movement of the events are, the results have been highly encouraging in regards to al Qaeda for the past year. As an organization al Qaeda has had severe problems mustering operational knowledge for large-scale attacks and appears to be playing to its weakness: combat.

The 'flypaper' strategy of Iraq, that many pointed to in 2003-04 as a rationale for going into Iraq only works if al Qaeda actually feels that such an operation would give long term threat to it and its goals. By 2005-06 that this was the case is unquestionable, as al Qaeda had Zarqawi, one of their more brutal but effective terrorist operators, in Iraq. The arms, supplies, personnel and logistical support that was provided to al Qaeda via Syria and, to a lesser degree, Saudi Arabia and Iran, demonstrated a high-level commitment by al Qaeda to operations there.

Conversely, by deemphasizing Afghanistan, and standing up a locally backed government via the traditional pre-Soviet overthrow means, and then training and operating with the Afghan forces, the COIN (Counter-Insurgency) work there has gained a local face and support base, even when it is foreigners doing some of the advanced fighting. Even though this has had its critics, saying that 'Afghanistan is where the actual fight is', al Qaeda demonstrated that the 'Front' was wherever they wanted to deliver fighters, arms and equipment. That was *not* Afghanistan, but Iraq. To keep that 'Front' effective, al Qaeda utilized Zarqawi's existing network from his previous work, Jund al-Sham and Tawhid and Jihad, to augment and integrate into the existing al Qaeda system of the Ansar al-Islam organization established in the late 1990's. In Afghanistan while al Qaeda did stage operations, most of the combat work was left up to the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's operations Hezbi-e-Islami and the al-Badr organization. Hekmatyar, himself, has played a key role as financial backer and supporter of the Talibe and al Qaeda, of which the latter does not like his narcotics trafficking all that much (and yes they do it too, the leadership is, apparently, schizophrenic or willing to sacrifice drug purity for cash).

That sets the stage for Mr. Robison's information from Internet Anthropologist, that the US told Pakistan that we had the coordinates for the training camps in Pakistan run by al Qaeda (and a couple by the Taliban) and were going to do something about it. And I do agree that those individuals moved over to the old Tora Bora complex, which is now finding itself semi-sealed off. A perfect training opportunity to see how the exfiltration skills for mountain terrain are! For those being trained, however, a failure on the report card does tend to mean a loss of life...

One obvious thing that does need to be pointed out, however, is the COINTEL (Counter-INTEL) work done by releasing the information to Pakistan, originally. That is: to find the leakers. If Mr. Robison and IA are correct, and I have no reason to think otherwise, the US has purposely released information to see how long and what Pakistani groups know about it and when so as to start the COINTEL process of finding and removing the leaks in the Pakistani government structure, mainly in the intelligence service (ISI). Coalition forces have proven very effective along the southern tier of Afghanistan from Khandihar and environs, so the routes to Iran may not have been ones that semi-trained terrorists would want to hazard. That left only the northern routes to Afghanistan, Tajikistan (via northern Afghanistan, unlikely, yes...), China and Kasmir as likely routes.

This is one of those lovely chances to combine COIN with COINTEL and get a twofer: find the leaks in the ISI by monitoring likely leakers via SIGINT and ELINT, and monitor the camps (if I remember two did not depopulate completely, but a training cadre remained in them) and the movement of personnel who would believe they were under emergency evacuation. That the US actually had the coordinates of the bases I do not doubt and they are now, most likely, under semi-automated watch for changes before winter hits. I do doubt that major attacks on these bases were intended, because the INTEL that can be gathered for both COIN and COINTEL is without price. The US had previously established UAV dominance in the area (as seen by the numerous complaints from Pakistan of same), but no one wanted to do anything about them or they were replaced with higher elevation or 'stealth' models, or replaced with actual Special Ops forces and very low level tactical UAVs although that is doubted due to the number of places to be monitored.

Such INTEL should have identified the major and minor traffic routes (moving personnel from 29 camps nearly overnight would tax any transport system), and would also serve to get clear identification of group size and affiliation. This will not only aid future surveillance (automated/semi-automated) but will allow for better connections to be made both backwards and forwards as more individuals are known. The forward individual sets would be those necessary to prep/supply Tora Bora for this influx, and finding who those people are in Afghanistan will allow for logistics supplies to be found and cut off at their sources and to start putting local pressure on the tribes involved. The backwards component, however, is interesting, as all of these individuals that are foreigners had to get to the camps *somehow*: the teleporter has yet to be invented, therefore air/sea/land movement of these individuals will leave an identifiable trail especially from air/seaports.

To take a temporary break from the in-country analysis for a bit, there is one thing that has bothered me since 2001: the shipping component of al Qaeda. One of the things that al Qaeda purchased during the 1990's was transport aircraft for movement of personnel and equipment from Afghanistan to Africa. Sayed Waqar Hasib from Tufts University puts together the entire al Qaeda organization for finances (the paper as a master's thesis is quite thorough) and uses the al Shamal money transfers for aircraft purchases as an example. Given the state of the aircraft industry and the number of older airframes on the market, especially in Africa, the ability of al Qaeda to purchase one or more aircraft is certain. At least two of the Boeing 707 class of aircraft (used for sizing and age, actually purchased airframes may vary) were acknowledged just after 9/11, as al Qaeda transported not only personnel and weapons, but also their gold reserves via such. Also reported at the time were 6 or more cargo vessels, most likely in the Indian Ocean basin, that al Qaeda either owned or leased via front companies. As far as my knowledge goes, no one has actually tracked these vessels down, and it would seem that they would be a high priority to find, given the penchant of al Qaeda for utilizing such for destructive purposes. That is why the backtracking of personnel movements is important: finding those vessels would be a top priority for the US Armed Forces and FBI.

Ok, back to the topic at hand: the breaking up of al Qaeda.

One thing not addressed so easily is the move of al Qaeda in the last few years to start supporting terrorists in Kashmir and taking a rhetorical 'hard line' against China. This is an interesting shift as, heretofore, the West was seen as the main evil by al Qaeda. Thus shifts, even after their big releases of interest by bin Laden and Zawahiri against the West, are happening. Rhetoric against the West, however, is proving difficult to sustain because the investment of men, equipment and cash into Iraq is degrading the al Qaeda command and training ability not only in Iraq but globally. The 'best and brightest' have been sent to Iraq and, regularly, killed/captured along with large chunks of their personal organization. Anbar province turning was a major strategic and tactical loss for al Qaeda. Worse is the self-declared capitol of the 'Islamic Republic of Iraq' (or whatever they are calling it today) and its province shifting hard against it. Diyala province and Baqubah 'flipped' as the 1920 brigades, the motley group of locals that hated the US until al Qaeda started killing their families, started serving as scouts and gaining HUMINT for not only the MNF but for IA and ISF. The Iraq Awakening based movement of tribes in Anbar taking control of things by utilizing tribe/clan/familial ties is now at work in the mixed sectarian province of Diyala.

Beyond the loss of the asserted capitol, al Qaeda was doing 'ethnic cleansing' against Shias. That was a major tripping point as the tribes cross sectarian boundaries. This is also seen in the areas south of Baghdad in the 'Triangle of Death', which is a major mixing point of tribes and sects. There sect matters more than tribes, but only to a degree: the tribes, themselves do not affiliate exclusively by sect and do need to work together and have done so in the past. What this points out is a major weakness both in the al Qaeda and Iranian backed JaM, 'Secret Cells' and Hezbollah. These organizations do not understand the nature of Iraq's society at its lowest level and, lacking that understanding, coercion has limited utility over time unless nothing opposes it. With the MNF and IA/ISF/IP now standing up and hard to oppose the terrorists and killers, that societal basis is gaining strength. Even in the cities, where tribe ties are weak but still present, this is happening and Baghdad, itself, is undergoing this transformation as local leaders stand up to represent neighborhoods and districts.

al Qaeda, strangely, has proven just as myopic in its view of Iraq as the Western Left has: both see tribalism as something that is inherently violent and only amenable to force. That is not the case, however, as the history of the US and Europe should point out. The family and clan affiliations in the Southern US are extremely strong, along with parts of Appalachia all the way up to Maine. You are not a 'local' in Maine until your family has lived there for three or four generations and then you are 'newbies' for another two or three generations. What, you thought that everything was nice and cozy metropolitan views in the US, all civilized? In the Western reaches of the US, from the desert South West through the Basin and Range all the way up to the Eastern parts of Cascadia, a similar set of views somewhat less family based, and more small town oriented yields similar results. People do, indeed, turn out in huge numbers for local High School games and enjoy such matches as it gives community affiliation and good natured rivalry, while rarely resulting in bloodshed. In Iraq things are, perhaps, closer to Ireland and Scotland prior to the 17th century, but it is those roots that show up time and again in the US. Likewise the various Eastern European Nations have seen similar and the Balkans remains one of the most ethnically, religiously and socially divided places on the planet. The West still *has* these roots and utilizes them, often negatively, but they are a positive force for social coherency and localized understanding.

Between the ancient Highland Clans of Scotland and the High School football games of Texas lies the societal underpinnings of Iraq. It is in a different language or set of languages, has different religions, and is in a far different part of the world, yet the tribal based system is one that is more than amenable to governing, government and being held accountable to actions. It is this last that a large swath of terrorists have ignored and are now paying the price for ignoring. In trying to see the world as all one thing, be it 'Global Ummah' or 'World Proletariat' those that try to enforce top down and dictatorial forms of government need to have a bloody hand when dealing with tribes. Work with tribes, build social cohesion and accountability into the government and utilize democracy to strengthen that system, while not excluding any from being a part of it, and any top down structure will fail in the face of that. Iraq is becoming the killing fields *of* terrorists: they are going there and dying at a rapid rate and local recruitment is slowing with the turning of Iraqis against these organizations. This is not the 'Ummah' coming together in Jihad or the 'Workers' uniting against the Imperialist... this is the families and tribes saying 'We have had enough of the killers'.

This is patently *not* the 'flypaper' that so many envisioned going in: with the US doing an inestimable job of figuring out the terrorism support mechanisms and getting rid of them before they could do much of anything. No, that world in which the US actually knew what Iraq was like did fail to materialize even if the 'flypaper' itself would work, but from this far different angle. You see that idea going in did not address the fly generators inside Iraq: the pre-existing organizations, like the Badr organization and Ansar al-Islam, although it was probably thought those could be easily handled. Almost immediately we got the Sadr folks, and problems from the get-go in Umm Qasr and Basra, then things only on a slow boil until al Qaeda could get roots down faster than they could be uprooted. Today the areas that host al Qaeda are addressed by Iraqis who are now putting in tips and information on whereabouts at a phenomenal rate. In the southern areas this is also leading the Shia tribes to start looking for the 'Awakening' concept there and they have knowledge of those tribes making it work. This is not 'flypaper', but the first hard breaks in Islam against the terrorist elements not only on the Sunni/Salafist/Wahabbi side, but also on the Shia side as well.

I will go back to my older analogy of the Faultlines of the Middle East as, being a geologist, I understand that a little bit better. With the view coming in from Western culture that the Sunni/Shia faultine predominated in Iraq, the concept was that this was going to be a 'civil war' that might see a 'three Nations' as an outcome. When first looking at the area, this faultline concept pressed by the MSM and punditry proved to be false, and as time wore on the depth of Iraqi tribal society must change that view. While external actors have attempted to shift this Middle Eastern sectarian faultline to cleave Iraq, the forces being Muslim Brotherhood, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Iran, Syria and the Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia, instead that faultline has petered out in size and strength and the other faultines, the tribal ones, are starting to end the main sectarian one's movement. Short of a few nuclear devices removing a number of Holy Sites in Iraq, there is now a final shifting of those faultlines there and due to culture. That culture is now pushing back and the ramifications in Islam, over time, will not be small. The next decade in Iraq are critical on a global scale for Islam as there are finally coming to the forefront large numbers of Moslems saying *no* to those wishing divisiveness and death.

It is something that happens on both sides of the sectarian faultline and the changes in alignment due to the tribal and cultural nature of Iraq will be profound. Iraq, along its Ancient Culture faultline, holds one pre-eminent position amongst all other regions in the Middle East: that of the center of learning for the Arab and Islamic cultures. If al Qaeda, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, JaM and the rest of those terror organizations are held and stopped and pushed back in Iraq by Iraqis, there will be a hard shift from the monetary support centers provided by Riyadh and Tehran. The Wahhabi support of the Muslim Brotherhood goes back decades, and that has been a harshly radicalizing force in Egypt and the Middle East. The Shia side in Tehran has also been radicalizing, but along a more organized and centered front called Hezbollah. For at least five decades for the Wahhabi side and nearly three decades for the Shia, the funds to promote killing, torture and Islamic radicalism has gone unchecked in the Middle East. There was only a freezing counter of stalemate with a dictator in Iraq who used religion as a front, but not pressing it in any great way. With the removal of that and the people in Iraq seeing the results of decades of Islamic radicalism visited on them after decades of Ba'athist tyranny, one cannot help to wonder *why* it seems strange there would be a backlash against this concept of 'killing one's way to power'.

In Afghanistan the existing tribal structure there has not undergone similar stress, as it has in Iraq. That said, Afghan tribes are, if anything, stronger than their Iraqi counter-parts and have a fierce warrior streak as do the Kurds in Iraq. The ancient enmities between tribes and ethnic groups in Afghanistan are also far stronger than in the rest of the Middle East (say, who are you calling an 'Uzbeck'?), so in that way it is far closer to ancestral forms of clan and tribe in the West. Afghanis have proven to have resolution, however, against opponents and those attacking them, and that dates back centuries: they are one of the great peoples of high mountain warfare, and they know how to defeat Empires. That cultural view has limited the Taliban and al Qaeda, however, as it is not manly to attack as a suicide bomber against civilians. The majority of such attacks are done by outsiders, while the Afghan bombers stalwartly go after 'hard targets' and get a very low body count. The entire US operational view has utilized this and continues to for some very good reasons:

1) Mountain warfare is damned hard to learn, and requires months if not longer of stamina building at altitude.

2) Afghan tribes respect small groups of fighters and the US, coming in with a small operational footprint, won quick support because we were not coming in as an invading Army, but small organizational groups of operatives willing to show our weight-class punch.

3) By utilizing the Northern Alliance and using that to oust the Taliban, cultural animosities could be limited to those already existing because of (2) above.

4) Allies of the US had small organizational units trained for high mountain warfare and they all punch above weight-class (light infantry in small amounts can stop fully supported armored columns).

These things moved the fight into a 'traditional warfare' arena with the added bonus of aerial capability. Plus one key US Ally, the Canadians, see the idea of a 'winter campaign' as a good way to demoralize an enemy... clearly the Afghanis thought they were nuts. Just as clearly the decoherence of the Taliban and al Qaeda this spring and summer are due, in large part, to small force Canadian operations during the winter. Even with a very low body count, being forced to fight when tradition says it is suicide to do so, is dispiriting. Even worse when you can't even *find* your ground based enemy: they are better at it than you are. If you want to know who found and scouted the camps, ID'd individuals and such, look to the Canadians there and a hearty thanks to them! From that follows the COINTEL and COIN synthesis where we are today with al Qaeda/Taliban forces stuck in Tora Bora which, apparently, we spent some time mapping out after 2001-02.

This relatively small fight in and around Tora Bora is, just like the changing of tribal views in Iraq, a major tactical and strategic turning point against al Qaeda. If this breaks morale and support lines and removes a goodly portion of the fighters out of the mix, Pakistan is put in a nasty place where the entire network is placed down in front of President Musharraf and he is told: 'do this with us or against us, either way it will get done'. That will be a long list of individuals in the ISI, Pakistani government, tribal governments, military organization and some number of civilian organizations as well. While al Qaeda was going after the Red Mosque, the Coalition forces were figuring out how to finally pin down the major al Qaeda and Taliban networks. If President Musharraf steps down to be head of the Army, and vacates the civilian Presidency, then it is because he has decided to move and he wants someone *else* to take the fall of going against the tribes. The contrary is, however, not the case, in dropping Army head and remaining President, he just may want to blame the dirty work on someone else. Either way he is facing a nasty shock in the next month or two as al Qaeda and Taliban are tracked and targeted in 'hot pursuit'.

I discount, completely, that either al Qaeda or the Taliban having enough strength, contacts and logistics to fight and win a late fall campaign. They have not trained for a winter campaign and that will be the death of them. If the US fails to get a green light from Pakistan, I expect that small operational high mountain warfare groups will do as the Canadians did and prosecute a winter campaign privately. Perhaps some justification via the 'hot pursuit' or declaring, by the Coalition or Afghani government that the Waziristan provinces are lawless territories without official government.

This is a very good sea change against al Qaeda, to say the least. It is also promising that if the US and Coalition in Afghanistan and Iraq can keep the ball rolling, that a major change in the tide of Islamic terrorism will be halted in its upward rise for a few years....

A few years? Not permanently?

Yes, that is correct. Iraq can change the course of Islam by becoming a stable Nation that respects Sunni and Shia Islam, and that will then add it in as a third power force in Islam outside of Riyadh and Tehran. That is a three-sided war in which only one side will win.

al Qaeda, as 'the base' is still a centralizing concept in Islamic terrorism on the Sunni/Wahabbi/Salafist side. It has a major predecessor, that of Turabi in Sudan, who likewise served as one of the first catalysts for Muslim Brotherhood cross-connected terrorism. Even with his power in the wane and isolated in Darfur and the Islamic Courts Union losing their recent struggle in Somalia, he served as the incubator for al Qaeda while it was in Africa. Turabi, getting on in years, hasn't really kept a good hand in things, but his organization continues on his tradition, even with most of Turabi's glamor gone. That leaves the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been a main organization for ideology and training of terrorists, and serving as the centralizing connection between terrorist organizations.

While HAMAS is their direct outgrowth, that organization has spread tendrils into: Algeria, Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Bosnia and the Tri-Border Area of South America. al Qaeda's 'affiliate structure' of multiple, localized groups, all have other ties back to the Muslim Brotherhood. Ayman al- Zawahiri got his start with MB as a separate teacher/thinker that would influence a wide sphere of individuals. Even with the end of al Qaeda as a group of individuals, al Qaeda as a concept structure is already utilized by MB and its associate structure. That associate structure is not one of direct command and organizations, but centralizing of training and logistics contacts along with multiple 'spiritual leaders'. If al Qaeda as a structural entity 'dies' it will be 'reborn' in MB, not by the al Qaeda name, but it will have a recognizable component structure to al Qaeda.

This is one of the reasons that bin Laden having been reported to 'hand off' the head of al Qaeda to Iran seems improbable: not sectarian differences, but organizational and structural differences. Hezbollah operates along a better controlled line of authority and has created an interlocking structure of External Security Organizations under Imad Mugniyah for Hezbollah. These are not 'affiliates' or 'associates': they have direct ties and control lines to the Hezbollah superstructure. What has happened, however, is the slow shift over the last decade of command authority and monetary gathering outwards to create more independence in the affiliates. Although best seen in the South American structure, with ownership of malls and working in pirated software, similar structures exist in Bosnia and Algeria. The affiliates of al Qaeda are almost all independent operators willing to work together for common cause, but only via sectarian outlook. Hezbollah has a command and control structure like a Foreign Legion, that has multiple, internal, fall-backs and ability to distribute and localize organizations while still having centralized control. These are not simpatico operational perspectives: shoe-string operations love their independence and ideological purity while commanded structures prefer uniformity across the organization to work as an organization. Free lancers vs. Staff.

Does what we are seeing signal a major sea change in Islamic Terrorism?

Yes, but only if it is worked at and *hard* for a few decades. There are other, orthagonal, forces in science and technology that will change this equation, but the basis of it is being set today and those changes will need to be viewed taking those into account. Something like cheap space access in the next decade would change this equation in huge ways as would something very simple like a cure for AIDS. While both outside the realm of the ideological struggle as perceived *today* they would be incorporated and quickly into it. The slow disintegration and move towards government centralization in the US is marking a long-term threat to Western democratic principles at their base, and continued shifts in that direction will also have massive and unknown consequences, but not for the better. We write history as we go and without firmly fixing goals to head towards, we risk losing the gains made to the dissolution of our society.

Even more deadly is that the West has not paid any attention, at all, to the increasing destructiveness and lethality of non-religious based terrorism, which now, on a per-act basis, is where the Islamic sort started out. This blindness will hit hard when that ratchets up to gain the headlines that only Islamic terrorists used to get, due to body count. It does us no good to finally bring the religious terrorism under some sort of wraps and then have the non-religious sort blossom in lethality as it accounts for far more terrorist acts than the religious sort. And if its lethality goes up as it has over the last 30 years, then that will see a body count the religious sort could not get in pure, raw numbers.

It is very well and good that al Qaeda is facing hardships and problems, possibly even breaking up. al Qaeda is not all Islamic terrorism and not all Islamic terrorism is due to al Qaeda. And al Qaeda is only one of many very, very bad organizations on this planet and the non-Islamic sort have had to take the lead of al Qaeda and Hezbollah on body counts to get any attention at all. And there are far more of those sorts of terrorists around today than there are Islamic ones. This is not a point-specific problem, but systemic.

We will have plugged one hole!

The damned thing that is leaking IS a sieve. One hole just doesn't do it.

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