Monday, October 17, 2005

Al-Qaida at the Crossroads

These are tough times for Al-Qaida.

Four years after 9-11, the terrorist organization is beset with problems, and facing critical decisions about its future strategy. And while the group's leaders still scheme to create an Islamofacist "caliphate" encompassing much of the Middle East, that dream seems further away from reality that it did four years ago.

In Iraq, Al-Qaida and its local allies received a stunning rebuke Saturday, when millions of Iraqis voted in favor of the new constitution. Despite hundreds of attacks in the weeks leading up to the election--and the threat of more terrorist strikes on the day of the vote--more than 61% of the Iraq electorate went to the polls and approved the new constitution. Final results won't be available until later this week, but early numbers suggest that the constitution passed in two of Iraq's four Sunni-dominated provinences--Al-Qaida's primary base of support inside the country. These results indicate that more Sunnis are becoming involved in the political process, and many seem willing to give Iraq's fledgling democracy a chance.

If that weren't bad enough, Iraqi security forces also appear to be turning the corner. Army Lt Gen David Petraeus just returned from a tour as Commander of Iraq's Multi-National Security Transition Command and NATO Training Mission. Gen Petraeus outlined the accomplishments of his command during a recent speech at Princeton, nicely summarized by Tiger Hawk. Suffice it to say, there are more trained Iraqi troops and police on the streets than ever before, and their numbers continue to increase. Al-Qaida's attempts to shatter Iraq's naescent security forces with a daily barrage of IEDs and VBEIDs are failing, despite the carnage.

Then, there's the internal rift between Al-Qaida's point man in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the group's senior leadership. Zarqawi's brutal tactics were rebuked in a recent letter from Al-Qaida's #2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who also complained about funding problems, and the increasing isolation of the group's senior leadership. In his letter, Zawahiri also identified Iraq as the primary battlefield in the War on Terror, stressing the importance of the on-going campaign against the Iraqi government and coalition security forces.

But it's a battle that Al-Qaida seems increasingly incapable of winning. Pouring resources into Iraq limits the group's ability to plan and execute more spectacular strikes on the enemy's home soil, or achieve its long-standing goal of acquiring--and using--weapons of mass destruction. Most of Al-Qaida's "successes" since 9-11 have stemmed from local affiliates planning and conducting their own attacks, with little assistance from the group's senior leadership. While these local cells are capable of deadly attacks (as evidenced by events in Bali, London and Madrid), they generally lack the resources to stage strikes on the scale of 9-11, something Al Qaida desperately desires to maintain its preeminence in the war against the Crusaders.

Al-Qaida can sustain this level of violence for some time, but there's a danger in that strategy. As western security continues to improve, so will our ability to interdict smaller-scale attacks. Indeed, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement have, according to President Bush, stopped at least 10 strikes of that sort since 9-11. That puts Al-Qaida in the category of a "manageable" threat, much like the IRA in the late 1970s, or various Palestinian groups today. "Manageable" means the threat is still there, but the Jihad isn't advancing much, and the dream of the caliphate remains as elusive as ever.

Clearly, Al-Qaida is at the cross-roads. It's Iraq strategy is slowly failing, and the insurgency has become a major drain on funding and other resources, at the expense of otheroperations. So what does bin-Laden do? The answer to that question remains unclear, but we may see a modified strategy emerge over the next year or so. For the short term, Al-Qaida will continue its deadly bombing campaign in Iraq, hoping continued U.S. casualties will force the Bush Administration to begin a withdrawal from the country, leaving the terrorists and their allies to deal with the Iraqi government and its security apparatus. But that would take a tremendous a major increase in U.S. combat deaths, requiring more successful attacks on a wider scale. And that means pouring even more resources into the fight, at a time when funding has become a problem, and Zarqawi's brutal tactics are undermining popular support among some Muslims.

One cautionary note: while Al-Qaida's position in Iraq is difficult, it is not untenable. The group is still scoring propaganda points in the western press, thanks to non-stop coverage of daily car and suicide bombings. Collectively, such coverage has created the false impression that Iraq is a quagmire, causing support for the war to drop among the American public. And while George W. Bush has proven time and time again that he does not govern by polls, he cannot completely ignore them, either. If support continues to decline, he may, at some point, be compelled to accelerate the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. But, with two successful elections in Iraq (and improvements among Iraqi security forces), the pull-out may not happen soon enough to facilitate Al-Qaida's aims.

If the news from Iraq remains grim, Al-Qaida will, at some point, be forced to make a tough decision. Continue to pour resources into a fight that looks unwinnable, or reduce its presence in Iraq (much like Afghanistan), and shift the operational focus on regions that offer more promise, such as Southeast Asia. A gradual Al-Qaida withdrawal from Iraq could also allow the group to marshal resources for its next "spectacular" operation--perhaps an attack using radiological, chemical or biological weapons on the U.S. homeland. That sort of strike would force the U.S. to reassess its own strategy in the War on Terror, and devote more military resources to homeland defense. That, in turn, might create new options for Al-Qaida in the Middle East, opportunities that are now lacking under its current strategy.

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