Monday, April 24, 2006

Bin Laden and His Discontents

The US war on terrorism, or more specifically, against al-Qaeda as an interntational terrorist organization, seems to be working. How can we tell? Because the latest missive from Osama bin Laden smacks of desperation. In his newest release, bin Laden urges his followers to flock to Sudan and Darfur to fight international peacekeepers, expresses support for Hamas and Islamic rebels in Chechnya, and discusses the need to be prepared for a long struggle against the Crusader-Zionist alliance.

However, there doesn't seem to be much that worries terrorism experts and analysts. From the Washington Post article linked above:
"Bin Laden is a master craftsman at recognizing issues and knowing how to exploit these issues for his own purposes," said M.J. Gohel, a London-based analyst and chief executive of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a security policy group. "He's trying to enlarge the global conflict and is trying to incite and anger the Muslim world against the West."

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism specialist and director of the Washington office of the Rand Corp., a California-based research group, said al-Qaeda is confronting the same challenge that all terrorism networks face: how to remain relevant as a radical movement over time.

"It's entirely cynical," he said of bin Laden's rallying cry on behalf of Darfur and Hamas. "He's got to say something about someplace. They've got to keep talking or else they're going to be irrelevant, especially when they're not directly involved in the fighting."

"These are contentious contemporary issues that he can glom onto and milk for his own ends," Hoffman added. "It's more rhetorical than factual. Bin Laden is no friend of the Sudanese. They told him to leave in 1996 and took his money. And Hamas has basically told al-Qaeda to mind its own business."

Counterterrorism officials and analysts said al-Qaeda's leaders have also become more outspoken in recent months because they fear losing their influence in the fragmented world of Islamic fundamentalism. Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician, have been effectively sidelined since the Sept. 11 attacks while other radical groups and figures, such as Hamas and Jordanian fighter Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, have stolen the limelight, the analysts said.

Of course, al-Qaeda in Iraq and al-Zarqawi seem to be doing rather well. However, the international version of al-Qaeda isn't. Dan Drezner asks over at his blog "if there is no spectacular terrorist attack in the next year -- on a par, say, with either the London or Madrid bombings -- is it safe to say that the threat from Al Qaeda should be seriously downgraded?" I think the answer is yes.

UPDATE: Of course, just after I posted this comes the news of a bombing at an Egyptian hotel in Dahab, Sinai, killing 22 and wounding more than 150. Does this disprove the point made above: that al Qaeda is losing and becoming desperate? Not at all. With no offense meant to the dead and wounded, blowing up a hotel is neither meaningful nor congruent with al Qaeda's larger campaign. It's simply not hard to blow up a hotel, or a bus, or any other "soft" target. Yes, it causes fear. But it does not indicate that al Qaeda's infrastructure remains capable of carrying out large-scale 9/11 attacks. Nor does it make al Qaeda relevant or a serious threat. Unfortunately, it is impossible to prevent all terror attacks, especially bombings against soft targets. When al Qaeda shows that it is capable of another 9/11 type of attack, I'll be worried.

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