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On Point

Al Qaeda, Sewer Rats, and the "Reconquista"


by Austin Bay
March 16, 2004

"It's a sewer," the British officer told me. "They connect in a sewer."

He meant the intricate international underworld of arms smuggling, drug trafficking, money laundering and covert financial trades where terrorists, extremist political factions, organized criminal gangs, rogue states, and corrupt companies encounter one another.

Late fall 2001: A British officer I met during an Army reserve tour was scanning a column of mine from August 2001. The column examined Irish Republican Army (IRA) connections to South American drug cartels and guerrillas, in particular the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The column included this sentence: "... Spanish and British sources connected both the FARC and the IRA with the Basque terrorist ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna)."

Chasing smugglers off the Irish coast had been my reader's introduction to counter-terror operations. (The Royal Navy played a key role in thwarting weapons shipments to the IRA and Protestant militias.) He could confirm ETA and the IRA cooperated. Drug trafficking was common to guerrilla groups throughout Europe. Those drugs not only came from South America, but from Afghan poppy fields in Central Asia, through the Middle East and the Balkans. Hence my fall 2001 question: Did Al Qaeda connect in the sewer? His careful hypothetical: given a major terror strike's intelligence and logistical requirements, he saw situations where even groups with vastly different agendas could tactically cooperate.

Rattling Sunday, March 14's Spanish national election is precisely that kind of short-range (tactical) political goal that would unite the strange and vicious bedfellows of ethnic Basque ETA terrorists and the global killers in Al Qaeda. Spain's center-right Popular Party repeatedly boxed ETA with deft political and police action. Ridding Spain of the Popular Party rallies the ETA. Popular Party Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, despite domestic opposition, put 1300 troops into Iraq. Cowing a democratic electorate and penalizing an American ally who helped take down an Arab despot boosts Al Qaeda.

It's a hypothetical, a could-be, but the larger point drawn from the March 11 slaughter in Madrid isn't: Chaos, fear, doubt and despair are goals shared by every terrorist.

In August 2001, terrorism wasn't on Oprah's or Geraldo's radars. Sept. 11, 2001, changed that. Post 9-11 it was clear -- at least to me and my counter-terror British pal -- that the threat posed by Al Qaeda had jumped several quanta, from crime fighting that occasionally required the tools and methods of war, to global war fighting that intimately relied on the entire spectrum of intelligence and anti-crime security tools, methods and personnel.

The audacity and fanatical magnitude of 9-11 changed the calculus. Treating the terror threat as quasi-criminal had been a strategic mistake. On February 1998, Osama bin Laden declared war on America. Despite the embassy bombings in August 1998 and President Clinton's declaration of a "war on terror," Washington still didn't treat the new terror as the highly nuanced form of transnational war it is. With 9-11, Al Qaeda said, "We're serious." Only nuclear or chemical weapons were missing from 9-11, and "facilitating rogue states" might provide those, if they ever concluded they could "slip some through the sewer" without paying too steep a penalty.

ETA denies responsibility for Spain's 3-11 (or 11-M in Spanish shorthand). An Al Qaeda front claims responsibility. The Spanish electorate is now responsible for dumping the Popular Party in favor of the "antiwar" Socialists. The "antiwar" tag will no doubt provoke anti-American leftist and Islamo-fascist glee, but the shallow delight of psychological denial won't alter the expanded terror threat.

Spain was an Islamist target before 9-11. Psychological and political denial won't remove the bull's-eye. For Islamists, 1492 isn't the year Columbus "discovered" America, it's the year Spain completed the "reconquista" -- the elimination of Iberia's Moorish (Muslim) states. Osama bin Laden bitterly lamented the loss of Al Andalus (Spain). His claims of "humiliation" resonated with European leftists. The historical "humiliation" of Spaniards under Arab imperialism drew little sympathy.

The Cold War had its Brezhnev Doctrine: once under Soviet domination, always under Soviet domination. Islamo-fascists have this version: once Muslim, always Muslim. Five centuries after Ferdinand and Isabella conquered Granada, 21st century Islamo-fascist fanatics seek to right "what went wrong" with their version of Muslim history.

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