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Re-Thinking the Jihad

By September 19, 2012 No Comments

Eleven years have passed since the al Qaeda attacks of 9/11 in 2001 horrified the world. The struggle against the Jihadis has continued since, with mixed results. Derek Nelson, a reporter of many years and once the Foreign Affairs Editor for Thomson Newspapers has been mulling over this struggle.

Want to know what to do about the know-nothing Islamic jihadi takeover of northern Mali? Then read on.

The Islamic Jihadi war against the West, as well as against non-Western governments that subscribe to international norms of behaviour, gets a thorough treatment in Seth Jones’ book Hunting in the Shadows (W.W. Norton, New York, 2012). It is subtitled “The Pursuit of al Qai’da Since 9/11” but that’s too narrow a description for its contents. It is really a coherent and comprehensive look at how al Qaida terrorism has ebbed and flowed since its 1988 founding, what Jones calls “waves,” of which he recounts three and worries about a fourth to come.

He keeps the focus on al Qaida, its operations, and certain individuals within it, which allows him to make a structured argument about the way the West should respond to Islamic terrorism. The one negative in his approach is that non-al Qaida operations, such as the first World Trade Center attack in 1993 – (albeit financed by al Qaida’s Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, architect of the 2001 Trade Center destruction), get rather short shrift. But that’s forgivable. All books have to draw lines.

He begins his analysis with what he calls a “model operation,” the 2006 derailing of the planned “liquids” plot that aimed to simultaneously blow up a dozen airliners crossing the Atlantic from Britain. Interestingly, despite the counter-terror operation’s success, he notes but doesn’t dwell on the fact that the U.S. end acted prematurely and unilaterally to the irritation of its British partners, much as New York police did in a later operation where the FBI wanted to wait. But bureaucratic infighting and turf wars are inherent to any inter-agency operations. The amazing thing documented by Jones is the string of successes Western intelligence and police agencies have racked up since 9/11, much of it started by electronic interception followed up by human assets. While the agencies involved have missed some individual terrorists, like the U.S. Army psychiatrist Hassan of the Fort Hood massacre, they have prevented all the big al Qaida plots.

Jones views the al Qaida war in evolutionary terms, noting how both the terrorist organization and the counter-terrorist forces deployed against it have changed over the past two decades since 1988. In its original form, al Qaida was a rigidly structured, centralized, hierarchical operation, but today it is a much more diffuse organization comprised of what amounts to five tiers of adherents.

First tier is “central al Qaida,” which nowadays is still based in Pakistan despite the killing of Osama bin Laden, although elements also operate out of Iran and the Persian Gulf states. It is noticeable how many al Qaida Muslim recruits from Western countries more or less learned their terrorism craft in Pakistan.

Second are the “affiliates,” as in a law firm where separate entities are all connected through finances, training, advice and other ways. Affiliate status is determined by ideological conformity as well as negotiations detailing what the use of the al Qaida name brand would mean. These groups include al Qaida in the Maghreb, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, East Africa (Somalia) and now Mali. Should any of them win territorial sovereignty, they will become bases for the further spread of jihadi operations as Afghanistan was prior to 9/11.

The third group is “allies,” jihadi groups whose focus is somewhat different from al Qaida and its affiliates, though these groups do interact, cross-train and share advice and people. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which supports insurgency in Afghanistan, and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which conducted the Mumbai slaughter of 2008, see themselves at war with India and any pro-Western regime in Kabul, and not necessarily with the rest of the world. As an aside, one does have to wonder when Taliban trainees such as Faial Shadzah try to blow up Times Square and when Pakistani Intelligence (ISI) protects, funds and advises both groups. The murderous Boko Haram terrorist group, which concentrates on destroying Christian churches and killing Christians in Nigeria, is another close al Qaida ally.

The next group falls into the same general sphere as “allies,” but are small, independent collections of individuals who make contact with al Qaida and receive its support. Western Muslims, who become jihadi true believers and travel to Pakistan or elsewhere for terrorism immersion, fall into this category.

Lastly, there are the “inspired,” Muslims who come to the same anti-Western and pro-terrorism conclusions as al Qaida, but operate on their own outside the al Qaida orbit. The “Toronto 18” is a good example.

What to do about it? Jones makes the following three-point argument for what he considers a proper anti-terrorism strategy: Utilizing a light footprint strategy in terms of deploying Western military forces; improving the effectiveness of regimes in countries threatened by al Qaida and exploiting al Qaida’s murderous approach to killing Muslim civilians for propaganda purposes.

The “light footprint” approach implies that the massive deployment of Western ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan was wrong, for it helped stimulate a new wave of terrorism and Muslim jihadi recruits. Again as an aside, Jones doesn’t deal with how to square the circle of the political need for democratic Western governments to justify their interventions by involving themselves in “nation-building” while pursuing an anti-terrorism policy.

Still, a good test case exists right now for Jones’ thesis. The al Qaida takeover of northern Mali should not be tolerated. The creation of a Islamic jihadi sanctuary in Sahel Africa is a danger to every country around it and those of us overseas. Using Western troops to eject it from the cities of the north would be totally justified.

In line, however, with Jones’ views, those troops — barring some advisors, special forces and air support — should not remain, but should withdraw, while Western governments pay to build up local military forces and form alliances with groups like separatist Taureg rebels sidelined by al Qaida.

Makes sense to me, just as it should have in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is not too late to get it right for once.