Friday, November 21, 2003

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What is Al Qaeda's strategy?

The bombings in Istanbul are being cited as evidence of Al Qaeda's growing strength, and as part of an innovative geopolitical strategy:

The attacks appeared aimed at disrupting the pro-Western secular axis many people in the Middle East believe the United States and Britain are trying to drive through the region with Iraq war. Such an axis would create a swath of territory friendly to the West from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf.

Well, then, color me confused - how do these attacks do anything but strengthen this axis? Andrew Sullivan phrases it nicely:

What exactly is the strategy behind going after Turkey and Saudi Arabia? We know the motivation - they despise Turkey's secular form of government and they loathe Saudi Arabia's connections to the West. But doesn't this strike you as spectacularly dumb from a strategic point of view? They have only helped make the West's case to the Saudis - that they cannot ignore this threat and certainly cannot buy it off. They may well alienate Turkey's Muslim population. And by murdering Brits, they have hopelessly undercut the anti-Western demonstrations in London.... Perhaps al Qaeda is now so disorganized that it is practically incapable of any intelligent strategy. Either way, these terrible murders are indicators of something worth noting: the enemy may be falling apart. This may make it more dangerous in the short term. But it bodes well for eventual victory.

What seems clear is that over the past year:

1) There have been no terrorist attacks on Western soil (i.e., the European Union and the Western Hemisphere).

2) There has been an increase in violent attacks in the Middle East.

3) Many of these attacks seem designed at Western ex-pats (or Jews) living in the region.

4) These bombings have been plagued by faulty intelligence and unbelievably high collateral damage.

Of course, this assessment could change with one spectacular attack.

However, at the moment, Al Qaeda seems to be incapable of doing anything except kill large numbers of Muslims.


posted by Dan on 11.21.03 at 11:25 AM


Just to venture a wild ass theory, but bombings on US soil only gains the US world wide sympathy - bad for Qaida because they don't want us to have sympathy. However, bombings in client countries builds resentment for the US and denies us alies.

Andrew is just playing the role of a useful idiot.

posted by: John on 11.21.03 at 11:25 AM [permalink]

The same kind of strategy seems to be working quite well for the bad guys in Iraq, in that every time there is a targeted explosion, the targeted NGO or international organization quietly flees the country. So I can see Al Q -- which is not made up of geopolitical masterminds -- thinking what works in Iraq should work in the rest of the Middle East.

Basically, though, the goal of Al Q seems to be killing mass quanities of people and getting those virgins in the afterlife. It's hard to believe the leadership of Al Q cares about much else.

posted by: appalled moderate on 11.21.03 at 11:25 AM [permalink]

Killing large numbers of Muslims has always been part of Islamist terror strategy. The apocalyptic clash with non-Muslims al Qaida dreams of can only happen if all Muslims are on their side, and terror (if it works) is much faster than persuasion. If Western security efforts had not made a repetition of 9/11 so difficult we might not see terror bombings in Saudi or Istanbul now, but they are in no way inconsistent with Islamist doctrine or practice.

The likelihood is that terror will not work this time. Recent Turkish, Italian, or British history offers no evidence that any of these countries can be cowed by killing their nationals. But a gang like al Qaida is playing against heavy odds anyway. Strategic calculation, in its situation, will not keep this group or others like it from acting according to their nature, which is to kill those they cannot dominate and terrorize those they cannot kill.

posted by: Zathras on 11.21.03 at 11:25 AM [permalink]

I agree with your wild ass theory.

Presuming that Al-Qaeda has a long-term strategy of embarassing the US and dimishing our influence in the Middle East, what serves Al-Qaeda's interests more at the moment?

1) bombing targets on Western soil, which would clearly bring that country into the war on terror or American soil, which would increase our resolve in Iraq. Not to mention more difficult to pull off.

2) bombing our allies in Iraq, which is clearly an effective strategy which has already denied us allies and non military support (Japan, S. Korea, the UN, Red Cross).

If the US withdrawls from Iraq and Iraq descends into chaos, Al-Qaeda would have acheived a goal of humilating us and reducing our influence in the middle east.

I'm sure the bombings in Saudi Arabia and Turkey during Ramadan are revolting to most Muslims, and have and will lead to crack downs. However, since Al-Qaeda appears to have a beef with the House of Saud and moderate Muslim countries, perhaps Al-Qaeda feels that it has a strong enough base of operations that it can destablize those countries as well as Iraq.

posted by: Brenton on 11.21.03 at 11:25 AM [permalink]

Don't forget, the US Embassy bombings killed and wounded far more Muslims than they did Americans.

That didn't seem to damage Osama's popularity, but perhaps that's due in part to anti-black racism among Arabs.

posted by: Jon H on 11.21.03 at 11:25 AM [permalink]

"I know it seems cynical, but outrages like these will probably boost Bush's popularity and his war-mongering campaign. Which will in turn boost Al Qaeda and the circle of violence will continue. You have to feel sorry for places like Turkey which get caught up in the middle."

That's precisely the point. While the foot soldiers in organized terrorism do it for their own warped sense of justice (God, community, whatever) the strategists see a bigger picture. These attacks, from Morocco to Bali, and everywhere in between, have given governments that would otherwise turn a blind eye to terrorism an investment. The attacks have forced govts to deal with the threat. When the threat is perceived as being so great the response is usually greater. That means a crackdown in all areas of society. Harsher laws being imposed, interference in daily life. They want these governments to become oppressive.

That's not so aQ can get a few more foot soldiers. The big plan is to create universal unrest against the governments. aQ hits and runs. That way the persistence of the government response seems pointless and more a measure of a corrupt/evil govt than a logical response. If people can come to hate their govt but forget the reason, aQ, then aQ can, in their minds, regroup under a different guise and become the people's saviors. It's the burning of the Reichstag on a grand scale. Sounds insane, and is.. but that's what these people are aiming for.

posted by: spoon on 11.21.03 at 11:25 AM [permalink]

There is a strategy, even to deliberately killing Muslims. It is the use murder and mayhem to convince backsliding Muslims of the futility of resisting the might of Allah and the resurrection of Pure Islam.

The bombings in Istanbul targeted Jews and Britons, Muslim deaths were accidental (though numerous). This, too is "strategic" for obvious reasons. Jews and Britons are viewed is in league with America. They, and those who tolerate them on their soil, are being made to pay a price for their tolerance. Will they find the price prohibitive? They must decide.

Al Qaida is quite simply trying to terrify EVERYONE into submission.

I wish my faith in humanity were such that I could be certain that such a strategy could not work. I don't think it will work, and I sincerely believe it will backfire, but I cannot be sure.

Randy M.

posted by: Randy McGregor on 11.21.03 at 11:25 AM [permalink]

Al Qaeda is pretty clearly trying to isolate the US here. Attack the UN, Italians, the British, the Turks, etc., and they will cave. Once the American public sees that it is alone in Iraq, pressure to withdraw will be greater. If the US withdraws, Al Qaeda will declare victory.

As for the flypaper theory, I find no reason to believe that Al Qaeda is less capable of attacking us here merely because they are attacking us there. Remember how few resources it took to hijack those planes? I strongly doubt that Al Qaeda sleeper cells in the US suddenly went to Iraq to join the jihad. They're here, and they're waiting. I only hope we're paying attention.

posted by: praktike on 11.21.03 at 11:25 AM [permalink]

Al Quaeda is acting out of frustration and impotence. These scum bags realize that they are on the losing side of history. This is why they have decided to target moderate Muslims. They have nothing to lose. The overall Muslim world wants to join the 21st century. Al Quaeda hypocritically claims to desire a return to the Middle Ages---while still enjoying some of the technological advances of our modern age. They are true believing nihilists embracing a culture of death. This is why the members of Al Qaeda must be either jailed or killed. There is no middle ground. It’s an all or nothing proposition. Either they die, or we will. Policies based on appeasement will only encourage them to commit further violent acts.

posted by: David Thomson on 11.21.03 at 11:25 AM [permalink]

It's not clear that al Qaeda is doing the ally-bombings in Iraq.

posted by: xian on 11.21.03 at 11:25 AM [permalink]

den Beste has posted an intriguing essay on al Qaeda's strategy and why it appears to make no sense from our point of view:

Worth the time if you haven't read it already.

posted by: Mike on 11.21.03 at 11:25 AM [permalink]

On the plus side for AQ, these attacks do continue to demonstrate that they have power, which I suspect is critical in maintaining their image. Failing to act in the Middle East (for the considerations above) or in the West (due to the difficulties in setting up those operations) might lead to a period of seeming impotence.

I think that that is probably a more important factor than destabilizing the Turkish government, which is pretty stable and has the army standing behind it against radical Islam. And, despite Den Beste's factless 'argument', I strongly suspect that AQ has been and will continue to follow a coherent strategy. They have certainly done well for themselves so far in the past few years, and I hesitate to write this off to luck, particularly since this would discourage us from attempting to anticipate future moves on their part.
9/11 was a perfect strike for AQ. We would never ignore it- but if we did, it would strengthen their reputation incredibly. Acting strongly, however, polarized much of the Middle East, drove a wedge between the US and Europe, and has now begun to make us look impotent in Iraq- we can conquer, but we cannot pacify...
(and, again we are handed a dilemma- we can pacify, and create repression, or we can continue to be attacked, and seem impotent.)


posted by: Carleton Wu on 11.21.03 at 11:25 AM [permalink]

I can't remember where I read this, but somebody has suggested that al Qaeda is "franchising." That is to say they have been allowing non Qaeda groups to use the name so as to create the appearance that al Qaeda is everywhere. It's an interesting idea. I'm sure they have no shortage of people who would be delighted to be part of the famous organization.

posted by: David Cavalier on 11.21.03 at 11:25 AM [permalink]

Mr. Cavalier is right. Back in early 90s, AQ had a real manpower problem. BL fixed it by inviting any and all terror groups to AQ base. They got training, and money to built their local orgs. What BL got in turn, was their loyal following and a tight logistics operation. BL built the first MacTerrorist org. Which is why AQ is still going strong today after we smashed their base. Gives new meaning to the phase"would you like fries with that".

posted by: Homer Robinson on 11.21.03 at 11:25 AM [permalink]

I wrote: "Don't forget, the US Embassy bombings killed and wounded far more Muslims than they did Americans.

That didn't seem to damage Osama's popularity, but perhaps that's due in part to anti-black racism among Arabs."

Having looked into the facts, it turns out I'm most likely wrong. Kenya is predominantly Christian, and Tanzania is only 35% Muslim (the largest religious group in the country, but still not enough to dominate).

posted by: Jon H on 11.21.03 at 11:25 AM [permalink]

i wonder if anyone has thought about the consequences of a dirty bomb, or worse,
a nuclear detonation on our soil, what
do you think would be the response?
anyone see the 2nd season of "24" I wonder.

posted by: gene m on 11.21.03 at 11:25 AM [permalink]

Alqueda strategy is not to target Westerners but the links between Westerners and Islamic peoples.

If there's anyone confused as to what that means, it means we got dumbshit analysts who can't see past their own noses. Alqueda's actions seem violent, indiscriminate, and even counter-productive insofar as they may alienate a large number of Muslims.

However their goal isn't to win over a large mainstream muslim sentiment group. This is not merely another pursuit of politics by other means. They have no normal political agenda that could be mainstreamed.

Yeah, sure today people in Islamic countries will be pissed off at Alqueda. Same thing for the Riyadh bombings. Tomorrow however, they will think twice about having a shop close to a British or US one. Tomorrow they will be hesistant to be seen as overly friendly or even live in the same neighborhood as an expat or Jewish family.

And given the tensions and mis-steps and diplomatic cluelessness of Western nations, if there isn't close association if or cultural interchange then the natural centrifugal forces of conflicts of interest and perspective will tear Islamic countries apart from Western ones. It won't happen tomorrow. It won't happen next year. But a few years down the road, it could end up isolating and alienating the vast number of Muslims from the viewpoints of the West. Once that happens, triggering a war or uprising against Western influences or backed governments will be a cinch.

That is their plan. Huge indiscriminate collateral damage of anything that smacks of cultural collusion or interchange is part of it.

posted by: Oldman on 11.21.03 at 11:25 AM [permalink]

Late note: I heard on the radio that the attacks in Turkey appear to have been perpetrated by Turkish citizens that reside in Kurdish areas. INO they are Kurdish *freedom fighters,* or something (I would call them irredentists if the Kurds had ever had a nation). So, most likely this is not associated with Muslim terrorism. The Turks and the Kurds have been killing each other for a while.

Interestingly, the Turks, while trading sites for US military bases and missiles in exchange for our patronage, managed to kill far more Kurds than Saddam's wildest fantasies. Hundreds of thousands.

But, I guess the difference was the Kurds in Turkey were trying to fight the state, and establish their own sovereign territory.

But in Iraq, the Kurds were attacking, um, freedom? That's it, they hated Saddam and Iraq for their freedoms.

All the ignorant chauvenists who have never read a book about the middle east, but instead masturbate to Jane's Defense Weekly and "debate" the best way to kill off the fundamentalist Muslims, wouldn't look so much like clucking chickens if they'd think for a moment: what is the biggest target for radical Islamic groups? The repressive governments, dictatorships, monarchs and emirs in the ME. (Egypt is the birthplace of the modern fundamentalist Muslim movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the state has tens of thousands of militants locked up).

So, what do Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Pakistan, and Iran until 1979, have in common? They are substantial allies of the US. (Egypt gets the second largest foreign assistance after Israel).

It's almost as if, say, there were groups who were fighting for political representation in the ME, against their oppressive rulers and the supplier of their illegitimate state's military strength and economic largesse.

No wait, that didn't come out right. I mean, we've got to clean out the Middle East right? We want to overthrow the House of Saud, right?

So does Osama bin Laden.

Wait. Nevermind.

posted by: andrew on 11.21.03 at 11:25 AM [permalink]

As the right-wingers keep saying, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

So, when Osama bin Laden founded al-Qaeda to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda was America's bestest friend.

That changed, of course, but then the US decided to invade Iraq, and as al-Qaeda also hated Iraq and wanted Saddam Hussein overthrown... well, draw the picture for yourself. ;-)

No, this post is not serious. It is a sarcastic look at those right-wingers who wave with the breeze, believing whatever they're told to believe.

posted by: Jesurgislac on 11.21.03 at 11:25 AM [permalink]

Jesurgislac, life does tend to fit into nice neat bundles like that when you run fast and loose with the facts as you obviously do. No one has ever accused the US of funding or supplying Al Qaeda during the Afghan invasion by the Soviets. We did work with the Taliban, amongst numerous other resistance groups (Taliban was one of many and much smaller then). These were indigenous group resisting Soviet conquest. Go do your research.
Also, its going to be very difficult to argue that Al Qaeda 'hated' Hussein, especially given the pile of evidence that they had been in contact and working together for the past 10 years that the CIA leak just exposed.
So who is the sheep and who are the shepherds here?

posted by: Mark Buehner on 11.21.03 at 11:25 AM [permalink]

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