"The War on Terror from Al Qaeda's Standpoint"
In the report below, Stratfor delves into al Qaeda's strategy now that many of their senior operatives have been either killed or captured or are in hiding and thus useless. Stratfor also discusses how the continued and frequent terrorist warnings by the Bush administration, while unavoidable, have served to heighten al Qaeda's profile as a major threat. And they conclude that more terrorist attacks are not a matter of if, but when. This is a very interesting report.
"The War From al Qaeda's Standpoint
17 June 2002
Recent reports say that al Qaeda is dispersing its forces globally and transferring control of the network to mid-level operatives. The move appears to be part of a reorganization of the group after a period in which it tried to identify its weaknesses. However, the group likely still feels little need to carry out an attack for now, as the United States continues to affirm that it is a viable power and threat.
Reports emerged over the weekend about intensifying al Qaeda activity on a global level. First, the Washington Post reported that -- according to U.S. intelligence -- Osama bin Laden had ordered al Qaeda operatives to disperse around the world and to prepare to carry out actions against American and Jewish interests.
The New York Times, also citing U.S. sources in the CIA and FBI, reported that mid-level operatives have assumed command of the network, replacing senior leaders who have been killed, captured or isolated. Clearly U.S. intelligence is engaged in a concerted effort to paint a picture of an al Qaeda network that is moving into position to strike.
The issue at this point in the war is what al Qaeda is thinking and planning. In a way, nothing is more difficult in war than to look at the world from the point of view of the enemy. In all wars the enemy is vague and shadowy, and no enemy is as vague and shadowy as al Qaeda; seeing the world through its eyes is an extraordinarily difficult exercise. Nevertheless, it is the one indispensable element necessary for understanding what the group can or might do.
From the standpoint of al Qaeda, Sept. 11 was a qualified success. In attacking the United States, only one of its missions -- the attack on the World Trade Center -- was a complete success. The attack on the Pentagon failed to destroy the U.S. military's command and planning center; the attack on the White House ended in a Pennsylvania field.
Other attacks that appeared to have been planned had to be aborted when the U.S. government grounded all non-military aircraft. The attack on the World Trade Center did have enormous impact, psychologically and economically, but on a broader strategic level, Sept. 11 did not achieve what al Qaeda hoped for.
The single most important purpose of Sept. 11 had nothing to do with the United States; instead it was intended as a message to the Islamic world. Al Qaeda intends to create an Islamic empire -- from the Philippine island of Mindanao to Morocco -- based on Islamic law. In effect, al Qaeda wants to create an Islamic superpower.
In order for this to happen, existing regimes in the Islamic world that either do not adhere to al Qaeda's understanding of Islam or are too closely aligned with what are seen as anti-Islamic forces (especially the United States), must be ended. In order to do this, the Islamic masses in each country must rise up and overthrow them.
Sept. 11 was directed at these masses. Its purpose was to demonstrate that the United States was highly vulnerable to al Qaeda and to provoke a retaliation by Washington that would cause an upheaval in the Muslim world. Al Qaeda fully expected a military response by the United States in Afghanistan and indeed welcomed it, seeing it as a way to demonstrate to the Islamic masses Washington's true intentions.
On this level, al Qaeda experienced only a partial success. There was no great uprising in the streets against the United States or its allies throughout the Islamic community. The Taliban dispersed into the Afghan and Pakistani countryside, denying Al Qaeda the kind of ongoing, direct and intense combat with the United States needed to generate a dramatic Islamic reaction.
This normally would have raised issues about al Qaeda's credibility. Therefore, in order to establish that it still was able to strike at the United States, logic would have required that al Qaeda carry out another mission around the beginning of this year -- to demonstrate that events in Afghanistan had not undermined its ability to operate.
But such attacks did not occur, mainly because al Qaeda did not have to demonstrate its continued viability. The Bush administration did that for al Qaeda, with almost constant warnings that the network represents a continuing threat to the United States. The U.S. government has become, in effect, al Qaeda's public relations office.
The United States had good reason for this, since it could not afford to be complacent about al Qaeda. Still, the net effect was that what al Qaeda feared the most -- being viewed as used up and defeated -- never happened. Al Qaeda never had to act to maintain its credibility.
There are two additional reasons why no further attacks have occurred. First, the United States acted rapidly to carry out a dragnet of potential al Qaeda operatives in the United States and overseas. Al Qaeda did not know which of its detained operatives had talked and which had not. For every al Qaeda operative in captivity, the group had to assume the worst.
The United States carefully did everything it could to confuse the issue, putting out hints and alerts all geared at making al Qaeda work itself into a paranoid frenzy. It was fairly effective. Since al Qaeda could not know how compromised it was, it had to reorganize its structure, reshuffling the deck to protect secure assets from compromised assets. That is the same reorganization that U.S. intelligence agencies carefully leaked to the Post and Times this weekend.
One of the methods al Qaeda used to examine its network's status was to leak information to various operatives and see what got back to the CIA and FBI. Since the information was always about pending attacks, and the United States had adopted a policy of publicizing threatened attacks, al Qaeda was able over a period of months to map out at least some of its vulnerabilities and deal with them.
Obviously, U.S. intelligence began to realize what al Qaeda was doing months ago. It also was stepping up its penetration of the network during that time. When it came upon a threat from a source known to be compromised, the public announcement of the threat forced al Qaeda to suspect loyal elements. Thus, just as the United States was confused about al Qaeda, al Qaeda wound up profoundly confused about which of its assets were secure and which weren't. This has forced them to postpone planned operations.
Finally, al Qaeda did not want to act before it had to. It may be global, but its members number in the thousands and its effective operatives are in the hundreds. With those numbers, operations are carried out only when they must be. And given the fact that the United States was making certain that no one doubted al Qaeda's existence and effectiveness, the need did not arise.
What al Qaeda did instead was reinvent its organization. It transferred authority from senior officials who were isolated in Afghanistan and Pakistan to junior officials whom they believed were not known to the CIA -- or at least not compromised. Then they carried out systematic tests of the system to identify potential traitors. They dispersed this force around the world, to deny the United States a single, clear target. Finally, they loaded U.S. intelligence sensors with endless streams of information about potential operations, so that real operations could be shielded in the morass of lies.
From al Qaeda's point of view, the relative disappointment of Sept. 11 has been to some extent reversed. The Islamic world knows not only that al Qaeda is alive, but also that the United States is obsessed with it. This demonstrates al Qaeda's intrinsic power throughout the Islamic world.
Further, as al Qaeda disperses, U.S. operations must disperse. This leads to greater friction between the Islamic nations and the United States. A possible Indian attack on Pakistan, even with nuclear weapons, also would fit right into al Qaeda's plans. Chaos in Pakistan would allow al Qaeda to carve out a secure base of operations and create sanctuary for Taliban forces operating in Afghanistan. Finally, and most important, it would allow al Qaeda to argue that Christians, Jews and Hindus had formed an alliance to crush Islam. From al Qaeda's point of view, the devastation of Pakistan would be a small price to pay.
Therefore, al Qaeda sees itself in a strong position in the long term. It has taken steps to make certain that U.S. intelligence can never shatter the network in a single, effective operation. They have created serious credibility problems for the Bush administration by forcing it to issue regular alerts for operations that were never seriously planned or that were aborted once the threat was announced. Tensions within the U.S. alliance have not been decisive but they have been there. And al Qaeda has demonstrated, in India, their ability to draw major powers in desired directions.
This last point is the key. In the long run, al Qaeda's ability to force the United States not only to focus on it, but also to affirm its power and danger is what will make the group effective in the Islamic world. Therefore, its thinking is that as long as the United States is prepared to underwrite its credibility publicly, it can preserve resources and protect against security failures simply by biding its time.
This is not what we expected it to do. It is, however, what al Qaeda has chosen to do in response to U.S. policy. Now it appears to be moving toward a sustainable operational tempo. While undoubtedly building up to a new attack in the United States, al Qaeda also is beginning operations against softer targets outside the country, using tactics that do not use up operatives in suicide attacks.
Al Qaeda never ceases to surprise. However, when we look through its eyes, we can begin to see the reasons behind its relative inaction over the past months and the reason why it will not take massive risks until it has to. It is building credibility in the Islamic world and creating tension between the United States and Muslim countries.
Al Qaeda has reorganized and redeployed. From its point of view, there is no rush. It will hit when it feels it has the need and ability. If the United States cannot destroy a few thousand men, that will be all the proof al Qaeda needs that Washington is a paper tiger. Survival is the key. The rest will grow from there. " END QUOTE
The Bush administration is in a tough spot. They know that many of the threats they receive are not credible. Yet as Stratfor points out, the real threats and operations may be buried in the "morass of lies." Because of this, the Bush administration has to go public with the threats.
President Bush has repeatedly said that the War On Terror will be a long one. Analysis such as you have just read certainly drives home that point.
What is not said is that people are already starting to ignore the war, the threats, the warnings, etc. The last time we had big warnings, the media was quick to ask the question, "Is the Bush administration unjustly scaring people?"
Stratfor's article drives home the point that it is truly not a question of if, but of when, another attack occurs. However, don't look for the media to support this view, especially as the mid-term elections draw near.
The American public has a long history of becoming apathetic about long-term struggles, or even protesting about them as they did in the Vietnam War. The media may try to use this tendency toward apathy to tarnish the administration's image prior to the upcoming elections, and certainly in 2004. In fact, they already have but the efforts have backfired on them, so far. But that could just be that the public is not apathetic enough - yet. I look for more media cries of "Bush is scaring the children" as we get further and further away from 911.
Ironically, I would wager that al Qaeda is also counting on the public's apathy. They are banking that we'll get tired of keeping our guard up and want to get back to our old lifestyles. That's when some of the attacks that Stratfor and others talk about are most likely to happen.
All the best,
Gary D. Halbert
More on restructuring of al Qaeda.
FBI searches L.A. coast for al Qaeda crew, cache.
No sign of al Qaeda on West Coast.
Seven al Qaeda arrested in Saudi Arabia.
(Story confirmed by Strafor and others.)
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