David Ignatius writes:
Behind the latest terrorism plots is an al-Qaeda leadership that is getting battered in Pakistan but that is determined to strike back wherever it can – using a dispersed network and new tactics that are harder to detect.
The package bombs sent last week from Yemen are one face of al-Qaeda’s continuing campaign. The Yemeni operatives are nimble, adaptive and “frustratingly clever,” says a U.S. counterterrorism official. “They have one main goal, which is to mess with us.”
We’ve got all sorts of metaphors going here. Al Qaeda is up against the ropes — but it’s punching back. It used to wait in caves, ready to be smoked out — even while it was on the run. But just in case its persistent ability to outwit US intelligence services might make the latter look unintelligent, we are duly reminded that our cavebound-boxing-running nemesis is actually very smart.
Now, with a melodramatic Hollywood-style flourish, France’s interior minister, Brice Hortefeux, adds that one of the printer bombs was defused just 17 minutes before it was due to explode! Let’s not forget (or maybe we are meant to forget) that British investigators took 20 hours to figure out that one of these devices was actually a bomb.
What’s the common thread here? That when officials and commentators talk about al Qaeda, the structure of their own thinking is much more in evidence than any understanding of the strategic thinking that probably connects a set of seemingly disparate events. My hunch is that the string of “failed” operations emanating from Yemen have actually accomplished most of their objectives.
Consider, for instance, this detail in the printer bombs: the way they were addressed — with names linked to the Crusades at out-of-date locations for two synagogues in Chicago.
We are told the bombs were designed to blow up on board the cargo aircraft that carried them, so why use addresses that could prematurely flag the parcels? If on the other hand the bombs were meant to reach the synagogues, in a meticulously planned operation such as this, wouldn’t we expect valid addresses to have been used? The addresses provide a clue that these were bombs meant to be found rather than explode.
Let’s not forget how the attack was actually averted — not through an NSA intercept but thanks to a tip from a former Guantanamo inmate who had a change of heart just in time.
Perhaps the object of the exercise here was neither to blow up synagogues nor bring down aircraft but simply generate fear around both possibilities. Indeed, al Qaeda is currently demonstrating that bombs which don’t explode can in many ways be just as effective and in some ways more effective than those that wreak havoc.
The choice of synagogues in Chicago may simply have been a way of making sure that some of President Obama’s most influential supporters — such as Lester Crown — would be pressing the White House to do everything necessary to tackle the threat from Yemen.
But why would al Qaeda be wanting America’s attention to now focus on Yemen?
Ignatius quotes a US official who claims that bin Laden’s response to Obama’s expansion of drone warfare in Pakistan was to send out a directive which could be summarized: “Undertake operations however and wherever you can. We need to prove ourselves again.”
Even if such a directive went out — one that portrays this fight simply as a contest in the expression of power — I find it hard to believe that this actually reveals much about al Qaeda’s strategic thinking. After all, as grandiose as their ambitions might be, they surely have few illusions about the nature of the power differential they face as Hellfire missiles come raining down.
Bin Laden’s more pressing concern, I would suggest, is to find a way of getting the hell out of Waziristan and lining up a new base for operations — a move precipitated not just as a result of drone warfare but more importantly because of the likelihood that any process of reconciliation that brings about an end to the war in Afghanistan will result in al Qaeda losing its sanctuary in Pakistan.
The conventional wisdom is that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operates independently from Pakistan-based commanders, but the Australian counterterrorism expert, Leah Farrall, thinks otherwise. AQAP, she writes:
… is not an affiliate, not a franchise, and not a network. Rather it is an operating branch of AQ, which means that while it may have authority for attacks in its area of operations (the Arabian Peninsula), it comes under AQ’s strategic command and control for external attacks outside of this area of operation. And it has always done so, right back to 02.
To the extent that the message coming out of Washington for most of the last year has been that Yemen is now the epicenter of the al Qaeda threat, this may reflect less about the depth of US intelligence than it does about al Qaeda’s own messaging. In other words, al Qaeda very much wants to be equated with Yemen.
Why? This much should be obvious to everyone: wherever the US sees a terrorist threat emanating from, its primary response is military. Yemen is no exception. Ignatius confirms that in the wake of Obama’s expanding drone war in Pakistan:
[a] similar escalation is likely in Yemen, with soldiers from the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command working with Yemeni government forces. The JSOC sums up its lethal approach with the phrase ‘find, fix, finish,’ but a U.S. official says it has been hard to keep track of al-Qaeda targets in Yemen’s tribal villages and cities.
The Pentagon’s thinking no doubt, is that a sufficiently “robust” response will ensure that the burgeoning threat from al Qaeda in Yemen can be nipped in the bud. Al Qaeda’s strategic view however, may well be radically different.
Farrall points out that al Qaeda in Iraq began with only 16 operatives. Thanks to the blundering American military machine, the jihadists were able to tap into enough local hostility that they were eventually able to trigger a civil war.
Even though the US is not contemplating invading Yemen, operations it conducts in collaboration with a compliant Yemeni government will do more to weaken that already weak government and thereby make the country an even more hospitable environment for al Qaeda HQ to relocate its operations.
Yemenis, far from sharing Washington’s concerns, view them with a mix of skepticism and suspicion. As the New York Times reports:
For now, most Yemenis seem to dismiss reports of Al Qaeda killings as a “masrah,” or drama, staged by the government and its American backers. The suspicion runs so deep that any action by the Yemeni government seems to confirm it: counterterrorist raids are often described as punitive measures against domestic foes, and the failure to act decisively is derided as collusion.
“This latest episode with the packages is only making it worse,” said Mr. Faqih, the Sana University professor. “Many people think it was all about the elections in the U.S., or an excuse for American military intervention here.”
If there is a set of assumptions that al Qaeda’s strategists can reliably make about their American adversaries it is that the Americans find it next to impossible to respond to acts of terrorism without recourse to military violence; that they pay insufficient attention to the motives of those they choose to fight; that patience is their most easily exhausted asset; and that without fail a fear-bound America can always be guaranteed to overreact.
Meanwhile, what passes for strategic thinking in Washington still takes seriously this bizarre idea: that it is possible to simultaneously bomb a country and assist in its development.
And people still wonder how it’s possible for a tiny militant organization to challenge American might? Because America makes it far too easy.