Counter-Terrorism: End Game


June 20, 2009: Al Qaeda is on the run again, this time from Pakistan. Over 30 Predator missile attacks on al Qaeda leadership in the last ten months has killed key leaders and crippled the terrorist organization in Pakistan. There are also shortages of cash and growing hostility from local allies (the Taliban, and the Pushtun tribes in general.) Many of the fleeing al Qaeda members only recently fled from Iraq, or places like Syria and Saudi Arabia. The new safe havens are Somalia and Yemen. Both are a step down from Pakistan. Somalia is in the midst of a civil war between pro-Al Qaeda militias (like al Shabaab), and more moderate (religiously) groups. Yemen has long been a sanctuary for al Qaeda, but it is less reliable as a base. Whenever al Qaeda does anything in Yemen, or traced back to Yemen, the Yemeni government reacts violently. The government is sensitive about all the tribal and clan relationships that prevent the country from slipping into civil war once again, but the government also depends on the United States and Saudi Arabia for lots of support, and pays for that by stomping on overt terrorist behavior. Moreover, that tangle of tribal relationships the government fosters, also provides good intel on who is doing what and where. Al Qaeda has few other places to flee to. The Sahel (especially along the Algerian border) is a possibility, but this region, at the southern edge of the Saharan desert, is nearly as unpredictable and dangerous (for Islamic terrorists) as Somalia. Plus, you have to get past a lot of police before you reach this desert outback. Same deal with places like the southern Philippines, Chechnya, Malaysia, Gaza, southern Lebanon, Syria, Indonesia or Bosnia. The welcome mat is definitely not out for these guys.

Al Qaeda has been destroyed as an organization since September 11, 2001, and has evolved into a philosophy, one that has taken root in small pockets throughout the Moslem world. One important al Qaeda (which means "the base" in Arabic) concept that still provides targets to attack, is the desire to set up terrorist training camps. Here, true believers can improve their technical skills.

Although terrorist training manuals exist on the Internet, most Islamic terrorists are not well educated (many are illiterate) and benefit most from hands-on instruction. In these camps, terrorist leaders can also firm up the ideological strength of their trainees. The majority of the most successful Islamic terrorists have some of this training in their background. Thus a major counter-terror effort is directed at finding and destroying these camps.

The war in Iraq led to the collapse of al Qaeda support in the Persian Gulf. Al Qaeda declared the "battle for Iraq" to be a really big deal, and a struggle that they could not afford to lose. Al Qaeda did lose, and did so by killing over 50,000 Moslems and triggering an uprising by Islamic radicals in neighboring countries. Al Qaeda members in Saudi Arabia, who had long kept quiet inside the kingdom, in return for an informal truce and sanctuary, attacked. But once the bombs began going off in Saudi Arabia, popular opinion turned against the Islamic terrorists, and within three years, al Qaeda was crushed in what was, for all practical purposes, its homeland. Many wealthy Saudis, who had long contributed large amounts of cash to Islamic extremists, cut their support. While al Qaeda lost most spectacularly in Iraq, they suffered even more damage because of their defeat in Saudi Arabia.

Ultimate victory against Islamic terrorism requires destroying the source of the anger and despair that creates the recruits. This is a cultural problem, and the cultural war moves slowly. The despots, and their millions of kin and associates, that rule the Moslem world, are not willing to surrender their power. Think of the Islamic world, especially the Arab countries, as the last empire. As earlier empires grew weak and helpless, they grew more dangerous. The oil money and urge to obtain nuclear weapons makes this empire even more dangerous than previous ones. Empires rarely end peacefully, and this one may expire in a particularly nasty fashion.



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