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On Point

Know Your Enemy

by Austin Bay
January 29, 2003

In 2003, America knows a lot more about Al Qaeda than it did on Sept. 11, 2001. We've a clearer strategic picture of Al Qaeda's goals and methods. Captured terror kingpins have spilled their guts. Videotapes found in Afghani caves have helped stop Al Qaeda operations in Southeast Asia. Electronic eavesdroppers monitor Al Qaeda chatter.

If you know your enemy, the strategic challenge is to use that knowledge to force him to fight on your terms. It's even better if that fight on your terms is a fight he cannot refuse.

Strategy is always about applying one's own strength to an opponent's weakness. Al Qaeda's historical pattern is to wait patiently, for years if necessary, and carefully prepare a terror operation until it's certain of success. Prior to 9-11, with little pressure on its hidden network (succored by the Taliban, Wahhabi petro-dollars and, yes, Iraq), Al Qaeda could take its time to spring a vicious surprise attack -- surprise and visionary viciousness being its strengths and the gist of its "asymmetric" challenge to America's "symmetric" power. "Fear us, America," was the message, "because Al Qaeda chooses the time and place of battle, and when we do you are defenseless."

9-11's strategic ambush sought to force America to fight on Al Qaeda's terms, to suck the United States into a no-win Afghan war, to bait the United States into launching a "crusade against Islam." Osama bin Laden believed he possessed an edge in ideological appeal, "faith based" strength against what he perceived as U.S. decadence. U.S. failure in Afghanistan would ignite a global "clash of civilizations" pitting all Muslims against America.

Bin Laden's strategy flopped, for a slew of reasons. Chief among them, American liberty remains an ideologically powerful idea. The United States also pulled an "asymmetric" military move of sorts, using Green Beret-guided Afghan allies and hi-tech airpower to topple the Taliban.

Since the loss of its Afghan base, Al Qaeda has experienced extraordinary pressure. Time to plan is squeezed. The United States has used diplomacy, police work, better intel and military presence to exert the pressure.

Al Qaeda has attempted to adapt, with talk of a sleeper cell strategy while aggressively attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Which leads to the subject of decisive U.S. military action against Iraq and its role in defeating Al Qaeda.

The massive American build-up around Iraq serves as a baited trap that Al Qaeda cannot ignore. Failure to react to the pending American attack would demonstrate Al Qaeda's impotence. For the sake of their own reputation (as well as any notion of divine sanction), Al Qaeda's cadres must show CNN and Al Jazeera they are still capable of dramatic endeavor.

This ain't theory. Al Qaeda's leaders and fighters know it, and the rats are coming out of their alleys. In Afghanistan, several hundred Al Qaeda fighters in the Pakistani border region have gone on the offensive. They specifically link their attacks to America's pending assault on Baghdad. Al Qaeda terror teams are reportedly moving into Western Europe.

Al Qaeda's offensive thrust in Afghanistan produces open targets for the 82nd Airborne Division. Moving and communicating terror cells are terror cells more vulnerable to police detection. Moreover, the terrorists are no longer operating on their time line, but on America's time line. The United States creates a situation where Al Qaeda either loses ideological credibility or must risk operations during a time of focused U.S. intelligence activity.

But the big blow to Al Qaeda will be the loss of Baghdad. Baghdad is a counter-terror intelligence trove. Saddam's fall will loosen knowledgeable tongues. Al Qaeda will have fewer alleys to inhabit.

But the big loss will be access to Saddam's WMD. A WMD spectacular is the kind of operation that can reverse Al Qaeda's international propaganda decline.

That ain't theory, either. Al Qaeda's leaders know it, which is why they seek nukes and nerve gas. It's why American strategists who know Al Qaeda know the axis of evil must be utterly broken.

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