In late November 2003, a Palestinian student group calling itself Al Awda attempted to hold a “Toronto Palestine Solidarity Conference” at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) building. What made the meeting unusual is that all those who would attend had to sign an agreement that basically stated that they agreed in principle with Palestinian terrorism against Israel.
As a result of some strong objections, the conference was delayed a week – and then was held at OISE anyway. From its language, and hints from other al Awda meetings on other North American campuses, it seems the group is a political front for Palestinian Islamic Jihad (making OISE liable for prosecution under Canada’s anti-terror laws). Some of those who attended the meeting were outside observers; many others came as members of the International Sociatlists and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.
The conference was an assembly of rants, and an announcement of previously agreed-upon activities in which the attendees were invented to participate.
OCAP is largely remembered for its aggressive confrontational protests (some of which ended up as staged riots). What al Awda was offering was access to a new cause wrapped up in an anti-US, anti-Israeli, anti-Western screed, and the possibilities of punch-ups and brawls at universities and elsewhere in the city in the style of the 2002 melee at Concordia in Montreal.
OCAP’s interest in making common cause with the front for Islamic Fundamentalist terrorists is not unusual. In Europe and America, their anarchistic colleagues are drifting in the same direction for the same reasons.
John Thompson is Editorial Director of the Mackenzie Institute which studies political instability and terrorism. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an article that just kept growing… partly because of the adverse reaction to the increased ‘Orange’ security level over the Holiday season. Also, because there is a very real danger of a major al Qaeda attack early in 2004. With the shock of 9-11 fading from our immediate public consciousness, it also seemed useful to issue a reminder of just what we are dealing with, before the big next attack.
What al Qaeda has to say
The classic sci-fi author Robert Heinlein once observed that stupidity is a capital offence with its own specific punishments. If you don’t believe him, check out the Darwin Awards web-site – there is no shortage of stupid people who get what is coming to them.
The real tragedy is when stupid people affect others around them. Right now, there are huge numbers of people with some very stupid observations about al Qaeda. Editorial letters and callers on talk shows accuse the US of paranoia, of using sham threats to create a new police state or a new empire, or smugly observe that the US is responsible for its own woes.
Generally, public concerns about Islamic Fundamentalist terror threats are subsiding, while annoyance with the restrictions and interruptions caused by the needs of security is increasing. This is fair enough, but one would be stupid to act on either feeling. Make no mistake about it: al Qaeda is a deadly serious threat and if you don’t believe me, at least take them at their own word.
There are websites -- subject to constant changes of address -- where al Qaeda’s supporters post messages, and there are the leaked tapes and videos from its leaders. (For those interested in looking these up for themselves, try looking for Daleel Almojahid – one of the more prolific posters.) Usually, just before a major attack, non-specific threats get posted to cue members and supporters that something big is coming.
Recent excerpts in the last couple of months include some real gems. Please note that all grammatical errors are from the originals and have been left intact.
“the message we send to the americans and to bush and blair, dont be very happy, we promise you that bouth of you will cry tears very soon and then just then you will know who Al-Qaida really is!!.”
“To all the crusaders, we have warned you alot of times to get out from our muslim lands and stop funding the jewish state but you dont listen and you will never listen. words are soon going to have a big sound that every one will hear. but then it will be too late for you to run out of fear. we gave you time and time but now your time is near.” [Note the classic terrorist argument of “whatever we do to you, it is your own fault and not ours.”]
“Sowrds of islam will strike the head of the big snake and cut it as we have cut its tale and slapt the rest of its body and then the world will watch and say (how could a big and great empire like this fall on its knees with out a breath?) and we say what god says in his holy book the Quran (how many times has a small bunch of people been able to win a big and huge army with the word of god!!)” [Here is the usual self-representation of the terrorist as the heroic David against a Goliath-sized foe. Moreover, the Fundamentalists seem to view themselves as the agents of God and thus entitled to an extra dollop of moral purpose when exercising self-vindication.]
“This is the last call for Muslims in New York, the east side and Los Angeles to start leaving. The mojahideen are now ready to teach the US a lesson it will never forget.”
“The war has just started and you will remember the word just started! And the coming will be bigger than everything before it; we will strike the Americans and the British in unexpected places at unexpected timings. And we promise all Muslims that victory is becoming very very close so pray for your mojahideen brothers in this holey days for they are currying on their shoulders the worries of our Islamic Omma [Nation or the community of believers] to free it from the crusaders in every single part of our land.”
“They [Americans] should prepare...their coffins, hospitals and graves. The coming days will be full of surprises and great events which will make them a historic example.”
“September 11 was the turning point and the wake up call that god intended on the hands of the mojahideen to wake up Muslims from their deep sleep and tell them to open their eyes and see what kind of corruption and injustice the world has became in !! May god protect and hold the hand of sheikh Osama bin laden and give him strength him and all the rest of the Muslim Mojahideen that began a start for a new Islamic era that will see the light of justice and real freedom soon.” [Again, this is a common terrorist message pointing out that they are building the brave new world and are the agents of some glorious destiny – thus excusing their sordid actions in the doomed present].
“Islam is a great nation with the potential to protect and take care of every one on this planet, the fairness of the Islamic system and the justice of it makes it above any man made systems that we are seeing these days.”
The ambition to reestablish the caliphate – rule by the single political, religious and military leader who will rule the Islamic world as a successor to the Prophet Muhammad is real enough. One can visit www.muhajiroun.com [no longer an active site as of 2011 - ed.], the present Internet home of a British organization, which openly declares its intention to work to reestablish the Caliphate - “in order that Islam dominates the World (Izhaar ud-Deen) and becomes the World order.” Al-Muhajiroun is run by the flamboyant Sheikh Omar Bakri; who gained international attention for advertising a conference to celebrate “the Magnificent 19” (the hijackers of 9/11). The conference was spoiled by all the advance publicity it received, but Bakri has never retracted his stated goal: “I want to see the black flag of Islam flying over Downing Street.”
Other recent al Qaeda messages include the following:
“all the rulers you are seeing right now in the Muslim world are hypocrites and the elimination of them is a must.”
“And the out come of the attack will be unbelievable and unexpected to you. Upon that any wrong move the administration takes in directing its policy will lead you to the cave of darkness. … And that's the name of the coming operation that will stop the (9 ) [whatever this means] and their people and destroy them forever, although we apologize from now to the human race from the hardship that will affect them as an aftermath to the attack, but it is a less hardship for us than to see continents slaved, we apologize in advance to the American people and to the European community's but you have stud hand in hand with your governments and left the Jews take control of the rest of the world.”
“we will give you a prior few minutes notice before our blessed attack so that you will be able to watch your destruction with your own satellite”
The Cave of Darkness
The overall agenda of al Qaeda might strike some people as being as mad as that of Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies, or that of some super-villain out of James Bond. However, contrary to popular belief, al Qaeda’s leaders are not insane and their communications make their master plan abundantly clear. Their first objective is to use terror to drive the “Crusaders” out of the Muslim World. The Crusaders are not just Americans, they are all Westerners and the reference is not just to military personnel, but to bankers, journalists, entertainers, human rights activists, and so on.
The point about Crusaders is informative for another reason. To Osama Bin Laden and his colleagues, the Islamic World properly consists of anywhere that was ever – however briefly – under Muslim rule. This includes Spain, the Balkans clear up to Hungary, much of European Russia and Siberia, India, and a variety of other points. Evidently, he doesn’t understand that a game of “Historical Grievances” can cut two ways.
The second objective is even grander, but no less real. Al Qaeda hopes to topple all of the governments in the Muslim world. All of which are seen as corrupt. Once this is done, the third objective is to restore the caliphate. Osama Bin Laden does not, evidently, see himself in this role but no doubt a suitable candidate will be ready when the time comes.
The final objective is to bring the single Muslim nation into an expansionary mode and ensure that the nation and faith (being the same thing) become the dominant power in the world.
That’s the plan, and al Qaeda is working to achieve this end. Currently, they seem to be working to achieve an operation called “The Cave of Darkness”.
Other communications from (and within) al Qaeda strongly hint at four factors to the Cave of Darkness attack. One is that the attack will occur on or before 2nd February 2004, and is timed to coincide with the annual pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina. New York appears to be the most likely target, and the attack may very well involve the use of weapons of mass destruction. Finally, there may be a series of parallel attacks in many places – particularly in the Middle East – to coincide with the main attack.
The annual pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina entails mass movement throughout the Middle East as some two million pilgrims head to the two cities. This provides an excellent opportunity both to move cadres of trained insurgents around and to concentrate some of them inside Saudi Arabia (where, incidentally, police just found a massive cache of explosives and small arms stashed by al Qaeda). It should be noted that al Qaeda has no more love for the Saudi Royal family than many Americans do, and that the presence of Western military personnel in parts of Saudi Arabia is a mighty annoyance to Osama bin Laden.
Additionally, the height of the Pilgrimage is an emotionally charged time, and a major successful assault on the US would capture the imaginations and support of more Muslims for al Qaeda than would otherwise be the case.
Although the US just dropped its alert level from Orange to Yellow, specific cautions for the aviation industry and American citizens in the Middle East (particularly in Saudi Arabia) remain high. Additionally, the surveillance in five key American cities for radioactive materials is probably going to continue.
As for the attack itself, the references to weapons of mass destruction imply the use of biological, chemical, nuclear or radiological agents.
Biological weaponry is notoriously tricky to use – nobody even noticed the attacks attempted by the Japanese group Aum Shinrikyo in 1995 and 1996, and al Qaeda is unlikely to have been able to produce enough material or to have learned to properly disseminate an agent.
Al Qaeda does have chemical weapons – footage of their tests on dogs and classroom notes on how to make basic poison gases were recovered from training bases in Afghanistan. However, a successful mass attack requires tons and tons of material and al Qaeda would find it difficult to smuggle enough material into the US to wipe out a village, let alone a major city. Perhaps a false-flagged ship or jetliner might be able to deliver an effective attack.
The threat of a nuclear bomb is real enough. Making a bomb is no great trick if one has the kryton switches and weapons grade fissionable materials. Moreover, there may be a couple of warheads missing from old Soviet tactical stockpiles and the inventories of some of the new nuclear-armed nations are not subject to much scrutiny. Someday, a nuclear weapon will be used in an act of terrorism and that day may come very soon.
However, what is most likely at the moment is a radiological bomb. This would consist of a large bomb made of conventional explosives lying at the core of a collection of non-fissionable radioactive materials. When the bomb goes off, all the radioactive material around it would be scattered – but not too far. This would be sufficient to lay down a dangerous concentration of material in the core of a city. The numbers of immediate casualties from such an attack might not be all that high, but there would be tens of thousands of people to evacuate (if not many more) and much panic both in the targeted city and throughout the Western World.
We may be fortunate and the higher level of vigilance may deter an attack in the coming weeks (not that this would stop al Qaeda from trying the same attack later). In the meantime we should do what all prudent military planners do: Plan for the worst and pray for the best.
Other Threats and Developments
So far, in the last month, the US and other Western nations have been lucky. It seemed evident that a number of activities have been curtailed – for the moment.
The threats issuing from al Qaeda websites are often but not always non-specific. However, they certainly provide a sampling of al Qaeda thinking. Similar messages were posted or intercepted before almost every major al Qaeda attack. Communications to and from senior al Qaeda leaders are sometimes picked up by Western signals intelligence agencies, and these individuals tend to communicate more often just before a major attack is launched; and they have been chatty in the last month or two.
As preparations for an attack get down to the local level, some degree of advance notice sometimes becomes possible through informers, leaks, or by watching the movements of suspected members and sympathizers.
While these sources of intelligence are also indistinct; in recent weeks there have been increasing hints of possible attacks with weapons of mass destruction. The Italians reacted to suggestions that an attack was planned on the Vatican or elsewhere in Rome around Christmas, and 9,000 extra police and soldiers were called out to guard key sites. Other apparently planned operations included an assault on a German military hospital that cares for NATO and Coalition wounded from Afghanistan and Iraq. Another concern was that a woman suicide bomber – concealing explosives in a way that only a woman can – was going to attempt to board a British Airliner.
There was an additional reminder that al Qaeda is not just a problem for the Americans. In the last month, a group of Chechen terrorists (who are very active in al Qaeda) and members of Ansar al Islam were picked up in France and Switzerland respectively. The Chechen cell was to prepare for a chemical weapons attack inside Paris, centered on the Russian embassy. Another cause for concern is that al Qaeda’s leading technical expert in bomb making and improvised chemical weapons has departed from his normal sanctuary somewhere in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier area, and is widely believed to be currently at large somewhere inside either Western Europe or North America.
Even if all these operations were curtailed or deterred by recent alerts, there is no guarantee of safety. Some scholars of terrorism point out that al Qaeda makes good on their threats; and that if a planned attack or operation has failed or been cancelled due to heightened security, they will try again later. It did take them eight years after their first failure with the World Trade Center to finally topple the towers. Some of the same analysts also point out that al Qaeda’s pace of operations has increased since September 11th, despite the liberation of Afghanistan.
It would be very stupid not to take the murderous ideologues of al Qaeda at their word – particularly about the upcoming “Cave of Darkness” operation aimed against the United States and its people.
In the autumn of 2003, the Russian Duma passed a new law regarding the pensions and benefits to be received by veterans of the Soviet military. As is so often the case, the details of the legislation gave away much more information than the Russian government might have wanted to see released. One of the appendixes to the legislation contained a list of “States, Cities, Territories and Periods of Warfare with Participation of Citizens of the Russian Federation.”
The Appendix is a fascinating view of some of the activities that the Soviets were up to, and includes several conflicts that have escaped our knowledge entirely. The Soviets did place a lot of their military personnel forward in and among client states and, more interestingly, within insurgent movements that were of interest to the Politburo. Some of these personnel were training officers or technical specialists, others may have been members of the Soviet special forces – the Spetsnaz, or from the furtive military intelligence organization the GRU. The conflicts from which existing survivors are to receive benefits include:
Civil War (1918 to 1922). This was the conflict in which the Bolshevik Party secured its own power after their coup in November 1917 and extended their rule across most of the former Tsarist Empire. Although the ‘Whites’ were largely defeated in 1920, it took some time before Lenin felt confident enough to retake the Ukraine and some of the Transcaucasus regions.
Polish War (1920). This was the invasion of Poland – seemingly as a first step to spreading the revolution to Europe by armed invasion. The Poles fought with considerable valor and stopped the invasion short of Warsaw, thus preserving peace inside Europe for another 20 years – a debt that has long been forgotten.
Liquidation of Basmachi (1922 to 1931). The Muslims of Central Asia had less tolerance for Communism than they did for the Tsar. It took a long time for the Soviets to subdue resistance to the imposition of their rule among the Central Asia Muslims. The rebels were indeed ‘liquidated’-- to a man.
Spanish War (1936-1939). Soviet advisors, pilots, technicians and political personnel propped up the doomed Republic against Franco’s Nationalists and their German and Italian allies. History remembers the Luftwaffe’s Kondor Legion in Spain, but tends to forget that Soviet manned fighters and bombers were often pitted against it.
Lake Hasan Conflict (1938). This was one of several incidents where Soviet military and Border troops engaged in open battle with Japanese troops along the Siberian-Manchurian frontier.
Halhin-Gol Conflict (1939). After the Lake Hasan Conflict of the year before, both sides geared up for the next border clash. This time, the Japanese were decisively beaten and Tokyo learned to be cautious about confronting Soviet troops again.
“Armed Action to Reunite the USSR Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia” (1939). For those who were curious about how the Russians would now describe their invasion (a result of the German-Soviet treaty of August 1939) of eastern Poland two weeks after the Nazi Blitzkrieg began… well, now you know.
Finnish War (1939-40). The Soviet invasion of Finland is also known as the “Winter War”. Although the Soviets won the conflict, the enormous casualties they received from tiny Finland’s stalwart army earned the future German ally a lot of Western sympathy.
Great Patriotic War (1941-1945). For the Soviets, and probably for the Russian people for generations to come, this was their war of wars. Their defence against German invasion and the subsequent drive to Berlin cost the lives of at least 20 million Soviet citizens.
Japanese War (1945). The Soviets entered the war against Imperial Japan on August 9th, with a massive invasion of Manchuria. The same day saw the second atomic bombing and the arrival of a gargantuan Anglo-American fleet off Japan – the first time the Japanese cabinet discussed surrender was on this very night.
China Conflicts (1945-49, 1950-53). Some interesting points can be made here. Initially, the Soviets backed Chang Gaishek’s Nationalists rather than Mao’s Communists (reversing this position around November 1945). Also there is a tacit admission that Soviet personnel were involved in the Korean War – including fighter pilots flying MiGs out of Manchuria.
Hungary Action (1956). This is another nice circumvention around a brutal reality – the suppression of the Hungarian Freedom Fighters. Note that actual combat wasn’t required in 1953 in Germany, nor in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Algiers Action (1962-1964). This is a surprising admission. During this time, the Muslim FLN guerrillas established Ben Bella’s government after the French withdrew; and brutally suppressed all opposition – including a revolt by the Kabylin Berbers. However, Soviet advisors must have been developing close relations with the new Algerian Army, as Soviet trained officers overthrew Ben Bella in 1965.
Egypt Actions (1962-63, 1967, 1968, 1969-72, 1973-74, 1974-75). Again, there are some surprises here. The active role of Soviet specialists (particularly as combat pilots and running SAM missile sites) was noticed in the 1967 Six Day War with Israel. Although Anwar Sadat ordered all Soviet advisors and experts out in 1972, some were still around for the 1968-72 series of engagements with Israel along the Suez Canal and in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. The reference to 1962-63 involves the failed Egyptian expedition to Yemen. Whatever events occurred with the Egyptian military in 1974-75 are a mystery, as they seem too obscure to have attracted much outside notice.
Yemen Actions (1962-63, 1969-76). A Soviet backed faction in Yemen rebelled in 1962, precipitating a civil war until 1965 – a war in which the Egyptians came in on the rebel side and sustained heavy losses. Despite the seeming peace agreements, a quiet but often savage war occurred in the interior of the country between Communist and Royalist forces for some years. Evidently the Soviets supplied advisors for the Communists (just as the British did for the Royalist side).
Vietnam Actions (1961-74). It was no great secret to the US that Soviet advisors were heavy on the ground in North Vietnam during this time – and that some were killed by US air attacks and apparently in one commando action. Later, it transpired that some Spetsnaz/GRU personnel were even watching the fighting inside South Vietnam.
Syria Actions (1967, 1970, 1972, 1973). In this string of episodes are the Six Day and the Yom Kippur Wars with Israel. In 1970, Syria invaded Jordan – largely to keep the Jordanians from expelling the PLO – and got their noses bloodied for doing so. Whatever events transpired in 1972, they probably refer to attritional incidents against the Israelis along the Golan Heights.
Angola Actions (1975-79). When the Portuguese pulled out of Angola, a civil war (which continues today) started between the main guerrilla forces. The Soviets backed the MPLA -- who had occupied the capital and appeared to be conventionally Marxist-- with equipment, advisors and Cuban troops. Eventually this operation was entirely farmed out to the Cubans and sundry small Warsaw Pact contingents.
Mozambique Actions (1967-69, 1975-79). The presence of Soviet personnel in the 1960s among the FRELIMO guerrillas in Mozambique – then a Portuguese possession – was not widely known at the time. When the Portuguese left in 1975, the Soviets were open in backing FRELIMO against the rival Renamo guerrilla movement, and in providing support from within Mozambique for Mugabe’s ZANU guerrillas who were menacing Rhodesia until Ian Smith signaled an end to the conflict. While the civil war in Mozambique continued to 1991, evidently the Soviets were not much interested in further participation after Mugabe came to power in Rhodesia (and named it Zimbabwe).
Ethiopia Actions (1977-79). In December 1976, the Soviets signed a military assistance pact with the Ethiopian government. Two months later, the quasi-Marxist Mengistu took power in a coup and used Soviet and Cuban troops and material to reverse a Somali invasion in the Ogaden and stabilize the front with the Eritrean rebels. By 1979 it was apparent to the Soviets that the Eritrean front was deadlocked – a situation which held true until 1989 when the rebels began their march on the Ethiopian capital.
Afghanistan Conflict (1978-1989). Note that Soviet military personnel were already active in Afghanistan well before the December 1979 invasion of the country. This was one of the few conflicts after 1945 where the Soviets were open about their presence, but they did have over 150,000 troops there.
Cambodia Action (1970). The Soviets, very sensibly, never had anything to do with Pol Pot. This probably relates to Soviet personnel with the North Vietnamese military who were caught up in the American incursion in Cambodia to destroy NVA sanctuaries.
Bangladesh Action (1972-73). Whatever this may be is a mystery, unless a typo is involved and some Soviet advisors with the Indian military were involved in the December 1971 Indian invasion/liberation of East Pakistan – which subsequently became Bangladesh.
Laos Actions (1960-63, 1964-68, 1969-70). This list of episodes includes the Pathet Lao insurgency against three consecutive Laotian governments, with Soviet involvement being most particular when North Vietnamese forces were active alongside the guerrillas.
Syria/Lebanon Action (1982). Irked by the growing PLO presence in South Lebanon (and the Syrian forces protecting them), the Israelis swept in – largely shattering whatever PLO and Syrian opposition they encountered. Soviet advisors/experts with the Syrian military would have definitely been encountered.
All in all, this is a long list of engagements although it would pale in comparison to American, British or French activities during the same time frame. However, in contrast to the Western powers who were often intervening to preserve stability or to debar an invasion; Soviet activities were often an effort to overthrowing a stable order, or were even naked acts of acquisitive aggression.
At least two inter-related series of conflicts are conspicuously absent: The use of military force in support of political internal security troops against Ukrainian/Baltic guerrillas during and after the Second World War, and in the sundry disorders, actions and conflicts that dotted the Republics of the Soviet Union during the late 1980s. Presumably the Russian Duma either prefers to overlook these altogether, or we must wait for a pension bill for veterans of the NKVD and the KGB paramilitary forces. It might be personally hazardous to hold one’s breath waiting for this legislation…
“Nothing have I found stronger than Necessity.”
- Euripides, Alcestis
“There are several good protections against temptation, but the surest is cowardice.”
- Mark Twain, Following the Equator
“Give me the avowed, erect and manly foe.
Firm I can meet, perhaps return the blow;
But of all the plagues, good Heaven, thy wrath can send,
Save me, oh save me, from the candid friend.”
- George Canning, New Morality, 1821
Some advice for the Yahoo demonstrators of the Anarchist Left…
“For you’ll ne’er mend your fortunes, nor help the just cause.
By breaking of windows, or breaking of laws.”
- Hannah More, Address in Spa Fields, 1817
John Thompson is Editorial Director of the Mackenzie Institute which studies political instability and terrorism. He can be reached at: email@example.com