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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Bruce Riedel

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Bruce Riedel

Last Build Date: Thu, 26 Apr 2007 00:45:15 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2007

Al Qaeda Strikes Back

Thu, 26 Apr 2007 00:45:15 -0600

Decisively defeating al Qaeda will be more difficult now than it would have been a few years ago. But it can still be done, if Washington and its partners implement a comprehensive strategy over several years, one focused on both attacking al Qaeda's leaders and ideas and altering the local conditions that allow them to thrive. Otherwise, it will only be a matter of time before al Qaeda strikes the U.S. homeland again. ONE LOST, TWO GAINED The al Qaeda leadership did not anticipate the rapid collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. Up to that point, Afghanistan had been a fertile breeding ground for the organization. According to some estimates, al Qaeda had trained up to 60,000 jihadists there. Al Qaeda leaders welcomed the invasion by U.S. and coalition forces on the assumption that they would quickly get mired in conflict, as the Soviets had two decades earlier. Al Qaeda and the Taliban thought they had decapitated the Afghan opposition and severely hampered its ability to fight by assassinating the Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Masoud two days before 9/11. But in December 2002, Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader and self-proclaimed "commander of the faithful," to whom bin Laden had sworn allegiance, lost Kandahar, the capital of the Taliban's fiefdom. The Taliban had already lost considerable support among Afghans by the time of the invasion because of their draconian implementation of fundamentalist Islamic law and their harsh crackdown on poppy cultivation, the mainstay of the Afghan economy. But the key to their defeat was the defection of Pakistan. According to Ahmed Rashid, the top expert on the Taliban, up to 60,000 Pakistani volunteers had served in the Taliban militia before 9/11, alongside dozens of active-duty Pakistani army advisers and even small Pakistani army commando units. When these experts left, the Taliban lost their conventional military capability and political patronage, and al Qaeda lost a safe haven for its operational planning, training, and propaganda efforts. The senior members of al Qaeda and the Taliban recovered quickly. In early 2002, they hid in the badlands along the Pakistani-Afghan border. fighters went underground, and the trail for the top three men (bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's top deputy) went cold almost immediately. For the next two years, al Qaeda focused on surviving -- and, with the Taliban, on building a new base of operations around Quetta, in the Baluchistan region of Pakistan. Al Qaeda also moved swiftly to develop a capability in Iraq, where it had little or no presence before 9/11. (The 9/11 Commission found no credible evidence of any operational connection between al Qaeda and Iraq before the attacks, and the infamous report connecting the 9/11 mastermind Mohamed Atta with Iraqi intelligence officers in Prague has been discredited.) On February 11, 2003, bin Laden sent a letter to the Iraqi people, broadcast via the satellite network al Jazeera, warning them to prepare for the "Crusaders' war to occupy one of Islam's former capitals, loot Muslim riches, and install a stooge regime to follow its masters in Washington and Tel Aviv to pave the way for the establishment of Greater Israel." He advised Iraqis to prepare for a long struggle against invading forces and engage in "urban and street warfare" and emphasized "the importance of martyrdom operations which have inflicted unprecedented harm on America and Israel." He even encouraged the jihadists in Iraq to work with "the socialist infidels" -- the Baathists -- in a "convergence of interests." Thousands of Arab volunteers, many of them inspired by bin Laden's words, went to Iraq in the run-up to the U.S. invasion. Some joined the fledgling network created by the longtime bin Laden associate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had fled Afghanistan and come to Iraq sometime in 2002 to begin preparations against the invasion. (Zarqawi had been a partner in al Qaeda's millennium plot to blow up the Radisson Hotel and other targets in Amman, Jordan, in De[...]