Evgeny Kirsanov (Russia)
CIA Director Leon Panetta recently issued a public statement saying that American intelligence has managed to inflict serious damage on the Al Qaeda hierarchy and has reduced its capabilities to their lowest level in its history. He said that Al Qaeda has been transformed into a poorly organized, fragmented body that has completely lost its chain of command and is seriously short of funds. The next logical statement will obviously be a declaration of victory over civilized society’s most fearsome enemy of the 21st century. Announcements like this one are not just Panetta’s personal opinion. They are consistent with estimates presented in a special report on the main threats to national security that was prepared by the US National Intelligence Council for the country’s leadership. According to that report, al-Qaeda is no longer functioning as a centralized organization; it has yielded its position to individual fanatics who are united by the ideology of Wahhabism and hatred for the ideals of Western democracy and moderate Muslim regimes. To put it crudely, al-Qaeda has been replaced by a few half-wits who get worked up in the spring and the autumn, as a Nigerian recently did when he tried to set off fireworks on an airplane.
We believe that in order to understand the reasoning of the American intelligence community we need to determine its criteria for evaluating the capabilities of the “terrible beast” known as al-Qaeda. According to the logic used by American intelligence, al-Qaeda was pictured not long ago as an evil organization which issued orders to heartless stooges and superspies all over the world like a villain in a James Bond film. That image gave the war an aura of heroism and made it very easy to get supplementary funding from Congress. This line of reasoning was backed up by al-Qaeda’s network of camps in Afghanistan, where any willing volunteer could receive training, and also by organization’s claim of responsibility for high-profile terrorist acts in countries of the Old and New Worlds (September 11, 2001, the London terrorist attacks, the Madrid train station etc.). Osama bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan actually ceased to exist after the American invasion, and the organization’s headquarters (or more accurately, its ideological leadership) relocated to the tribal zone on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. But has anyone proven that training areas for training new martyrs have disappeared? The training ground for new recruits simply expanded automatically from 5-6 camps to all of Afghanistan, Iraq’s Sunni triangle and virtually all of northwest Pakistan. Whereas previously martyrs showed off for the camera by defiantly crawling under barbed wire and running with raised knees while shouting “Allah Akbar,” now they receive their training in battle. And that is the harshest and most effective school. They do not suffer man-power shortage, but those who survive the slaughter are worth 10 men each. The statistics on the training of suicide bombers prove the American analysts are wrong. Attacks by suicide bombers are clearly increasing in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, although less so in Pakistan. This is interesting in that there is an obvious relationship between the quantity of attacks and the number of Arab instructors. We can certainly say that if there is a suicide bombing in a country where the citizens have never been engaged in suicide attacks, Arabs have definitely paid them a visit. Judging by recent reports from Afghanistan and Iraq, the number of such “guests” in those countries has gone off the scale. But so far there are relatively few in Pakistan.
Moreover, no one has yet conclusively proven that the people who engaged in high profile attacks were members of Osama bin Laden’s group who sat and worked out plans together with him, who kept in direct contact with him while carrying out attacks, and so forth. There is no “entourage” to indicate that any kind of organization exists. Has bin Laden ever announced that he organized everything? His job is to handle propaganda and public relations. Some terrorists have traveled to Afghanistan? They all made a pilgrimage to Mecca, too—so what? Should we bomb Saudi Arabia?
Now we are getting at the key issue with the operation of al-Qaeda itself. Unlike the American analysts, who as good mathematicians expect every organization to have a headquarters, means of communication, regiments and battalions, and, most importantly, a rigid structure and discipline, we maintain that nothing like that existed even when al-Qaeda was being formed. Many such organizations have been established around the world, but al-Qaeda took root in the minds of jihadists because it appeared at the right time and in the right place. Had it appeared three years earlier, no one would have paid it any attention. More than anything, it is like a religion, a way of thinking, an answer to the hopes and dreams of many people. Al-Qaeda’s good PR technologies have simply succeeded in packaging peoples’ thoughts in an acceptable and understandable form. Of course, the existence of a “free territory” where each volunteer could come for advice played a key role—that and the fact that the world was shaken at the time by inter-ethnic conflicts (Chechnya, Yugoslavia). These factors, plus the crisis of ideas concerning development in the Muslim world and the aggressive monopolar domination of the United States, all combined to create this phenomenon.
The same issues come up with regard to the “decline” in funding. To begin with, even initially Osama bin Laden did not willingly give money to peripheral organizations: it was a fairly complex scheme in principle, but he was not in the business of printing money. Therefore, in early 2000 he decided to make those cells self-financing. The same thing is true with orders. Al-Qaeda does not issue orders; it chooses the direction of the main attack and relays it to volunteers via the Internet. Each then chooses for himself how to operate and what resources to use. That is the key feature of the organization. If anything, it is the Islamic embodiment of the idea of “democratic centralism.” The absence of a communications system as the term is traditionally understood in “scientific counterintelligence” eliminates the most vulnerable link for any terrorist group and frees the ideological headquarters from unnecessary efforts. In fact, it is simply impossible to manage Islamic cells all over the world as we understand the concept by analogy with the way Toyota is run.
We do not know how the Americans calculate Al Qaeda’s funding. If they have operational data in mind, their figures are approximate to say the least. If they focus on formal money transfers, they are foolish. In any event, judging by terrorist activities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, it is hard to imagine that they are short on funds, all the more so because the volume of drug trafficking from Afghanistan is growing exponentially in comparison with the increase in coalition force activity. And that does not inspire optimism.
When Leon Panetta made his “historic” announcement, he referred to an “intercepted message” from one of bin Laden’s field commanders who allegedly said that all was lost and there was no money. In the first place, what kind of basis is that for drawing fundamental conclusions? In the second place, the CIA’s public relations people in Iraq used the same technique about a year ago to prove that Al Qaeda had been defeated and to prepare Americans for the idea that the war in Iraq had ended in complete victory. The goal was to justify Obama’s strategy of withdrawing troops from the country. Exactly the same thing is happening now. He has to pull out of Afghanistan with dignity and in victory.
Mr.Kirsanov is an expert of the Russian Institute of Middle East Stidies. The article was published in Russian at the Institute’s website. The views expressed are his own and may not coincide in every aspect with the attitude of the OR Editorial.