Counter-Terrorism: Al Qaeda and Blowback


September 30, 2005: Where is terrorism going? It's going back to where it has long been; local. Like politics, all (or certainly most) terrorism is local. International terrorism is rare, and usually has a national organization providing needed support (the KGB during the Cold War, al Qaeda in Afghanistan during the 1990s.)

What the remnants of al Qaeda are trying to do now is recreate the Anarchist movement of a century ago, where local groups tried to act with an international purpose. Back then, the Anarchists stayed in touch via letters, and especially the vibrant daily newspapers which, using an efficient international telegraph system and the new wire services (AP, UPI, Reuters, Etc.) had reporters just about everywhere on the planet. Not quite CNN, but close enough. The Anarchists were idealistic, obsessed and murderous young men (and a few women) determined to remake the world. Sound familiar?

The Internet makes a difference by speeding things up. A century ago, international mail took weeks to get delivered. Today, delivery time is a second, or less. This makes it easier for some kind of international network to be created. But it also makes it easy for police to keep tabs on budding terrorists. While the more astute terrorists (or wannabes) use some simple techniques to keep their identity, and Internet activities, secret, most of the pro-terrorist crowd are easily tracked and identified. This has not been an entirely positive thing for police. They now know that al Qaeda, and local terrorists, have become the new folk heroes. The bad guys know how to play on the Hollywood image, posturing with words and pictures on websites. In many parts of the world, manufacturers of t-shirts and other pro-terrorist paraphernalia are not far behind. Recruiting is not as easy as you might think, for the most willing volunteers tend to be the least skilled. But there is a source of manpower for the murder minded terrorists.

In the long run, the short period where al Qaeda was a truly international terrorist organization, with headquarters and training facilities in Afghanistan, will turn out to be a very negative thing for the terrorists. The 911 attacks, and the launching of the war on terror, caused many nations to cooperate in going after terrorists. Suddenly, there were a lot fewer places a terrorist could flee to. Before 911, there were many countries that would give refuge to a terrorist, if these nasty fellows simply declared themselves freedom fighters fleeing oppression in the Old Country. That doesn't work any more. Worse, most nations are sharing counter-terrorist techniques.

While terrorism has been forced to go local, counter-terrorism has gone international. How is this playing out? Deaths among terrorists are up, terrorist attacks down (at least in the West). Most of the terrorist groups represent real grievances, but the terrorists have been constantly defeated in their home countries. Now, their attacks on foreigners have merely created an even more formidable coalition to oppose them. This means that local terrorists are having a harder time. Al Qaeda, rather than making terrorism deadlier, has made it more vulnerable.


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