CST Blog

Eight years on

11 September 2009

The Guardian marks today's anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks with a fascinating assessment of the state of al-Qaeda's global jihad, eight years on. Based on interviews with officials and experts in and out of government, it concludes:

As another anniversary of 9/11 comes around, the global pattern that emerges is that al-Qaida is marginalised in Iraq and in trouble in Afghanistan and Pakistan, although its offshoots and associates in north Africa and the Yemen are stronger and may still be growing. Its ability to conduct long-range operations in Europe and the United States, or even just to support home-grown plots in western countries, has been reduced by good intelligence and measures such as the continual tracking of its communications.

Most striking in the Guardian's set of articles, which are worth reading in full, are the revelations of training conditions for western recruits:

This week's conviction of three Britons of Pakistani origin for the 2006 "Lucozade" plot against transatlantic flights was a sobering reminder. Others are recruited in Kashmir or the Punjab when they visit relatives. Suicide bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan often involve al-Qaida. "AfPak and the al-Qaida core remain our focus and main concern," one Whitehall official told the Guardian.

But if the will to strike remains strong, the ability of al-Qaida's central leadership to commission or execute spectacular attacks looks weaker than sometimes thought, experts say.

The reality in the Pakistani tribal areas is certainly different from the popular image. The European volunteers told of crossed wires and confusion. Having been cheated by people smugglers on their journey via Turkey, no one was expecting them when they arrived in North Waziristan. Next, they were surprised to find they were expected to pay around $1,000 (£600) for their equipment, weapons and accommodation. The statements appear to confirm intelligence reports that al-Qaida is short of cash.

The disappointments continued. Bin Laden was impossible to see, they were told. Nor was there any real need for them as fighters in Afghanistan. Training involved little live firing; they underwent weeks of religious instruction from a junior cleric; an instructor made a bomb, but they had no opportunity to try themselves. They were often forbidden to venture outdoors.

One of the six did eventually participate in operations against US forces. But the others, some ill and all disillusioned, gave up and returned to Europe. They deny prosecution claims that they came back to bomb the Brussels metro or football stadiums.

Their account of life at the heart of what intelligence sources call "the grand central station" of international Islamic militancy is corroborated by Bryant Neal Vinas, a young American convert arrested in October 2008. He also described moving from house to house and attending makeshift training sessions.

On the anniversary of 9/11, and with the growing debate about the future course of the ongoing war in Afghanistan that was triggered by that attack, it is worth pausing to remember the very different situation for jihadists in Afghanistan prior to September 2001. Brynjar Lia's masterful biography of the veteran jihadist thinker Abu Mus'ab al-Suri, Architect of Global Jihad, includes this account, from al-Suri's The Global Islamic Resistance Call:

By 2000, the number of jihadi groups, training camps, or formations and projects had reached fourteen formations, organizations or camps, which enjoyed formal recognition by the Taleban. They were linked to the ministry of defense, the ministry of interior and the intelligence branch through a programme of discipline, coordination and cooperation, partly with a view to coordinating their support and jihad alongside that of the Taleban, but also to facilitate their own programmes. In addition there were the Pakistani groups that were also organized through a special programme, and they were numerous.

Al-Suri goes on to list the fourteen jihadi groups - not including the various Pakistani groups - as follows: Uzbek mujahidin; mujahidin from Chinese-occupied Eastern Turkmenistan; Turkish mujahidin; the 'al-Qaeda' organization; the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group; the Islamic Fighting Group in Morocco; the Egyptian Islamic Jihad Group; the Egyptian Islamic Group; the Algerian jihadi formation; the Tunisian jihadi formation; the formation of mujahidin from Jordan and Palestine; the Khalden camp [a general training camp which al-Suri estimated had trained over 20,000 trainees since 1989]; the Shaykh Abu Khabab al-Masri training camp [another general training camp, devoted to specialist instruction in explosives and chemicals]; the al-Ghuraba camp [al-Suri's own training camp, not to be confused with the al-Muhajiroun successor group of the same name].

This is the jihadi infrastructure that not only produced 9/11, but also, as al-Suri's taxonomy implies, produced a great deal of violence and instability in many Arab and Muslim countries. Additionally, as Sunny Hurndal has pointed out elsewhere, it was part of a wider picture of instability in South Asia and the very real danger of military conflict between India and Pakistan. All of this infrastructure was wiped out in Afghanistan after 9/11; al-Suri estimates 80% of the jihadi forces were eliminated. Since then, al-Qaeda has been on the run, leading  al-Suri to conclude that "...the only way to confront the enemy today in light of this reality, is the method of secret guerrilla war consisting of unconnected cells, numerous and different types of cells."

Al-Suri has advocated this model of decentralised jihad - what he calls "system, not organisation" - for more than a decade, and as a necessity it has become the dominant model for al-Qaeda's supporters around the world in recent years. The evidence so far suggests that it is far less effective than the centralised jihad, well-resourced and state-backed, which put down roots in Afghanistan under the Taleban. Al-Suri advises exactly the kind of theoretical jihadi training in safe houses that is described in the Guardian report; and that report leaves no doubt as to the limitations of such a system. The liquid bomb plot which ended in court earlier this week depended heavily on support and leadership from al-Qaeda in Pakistan, as have most other major plots in Western countries, both successful and unsuccessful. The idea of self-radicalising terrorist networks or cells, with no connection to each other and no central leadership, sounds plausible in theory, and has in the past generated significant, if limited, terrorist campaigns. But in reality, the "system, not organisation" model, with no links to al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan or Afghanistan, has not yet proved capable of producing the kind of large-scale terrorism with which al-Qaeda made its name. This does not mean that it will never do so; but it explains why, as the latest Terrorism Monitor from the Jamestown Foundation argues, the search for a new safe haven - or ideally several safe havens - is central to the current strategy of the Salafi-Jihadi movement.

The debate over the war in Afghanistan is a complex one: it involves issues of nation-building, counter-insurgency tactics and the cold calculation of unknown lives saved in terrorist attacks prevented, balanced against known lives lost of British and other servicemen and women. The point of this post is not to describe this debate in full. Rather, it is to remember why the war began, what Afghanistan was before the invasion, and what it could become again - not just for Britain but for many countries, particularly in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia - if the Taleban returns to power.


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