The SWISH Report (2)

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
13 January 2005


Six months ago you asked us to undertake an independent analysis of the progress of your campaign. We reported to you in our first paper on the situation as of July 2004. That report was for your consideration as the SPC, but was also expected to be shared with your leadership. You asked us to be candid in assessing threats and opportunities at that time, and also to suggest changes in strategy that might be appropriate in the pursuit of your aims.

Our first report was produced when the United States presidential election campaign was still underway, although George W Bush already seemed to be the likely winner. You have now asked us to produce a follow-up report in the light of the result of that election and of developments elsewhere, not least in Iraq.

openDemocracy published the SWISH institute’s first overview of al-Qaida’s condition and prospects six months ago. Read “The SWISH Report” ( July 2004)

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We propose to start by summarising our own understanding of the aims of your consortium and we will then outline the findings of our first report. We have to say that we believe our earlier conclusions were very substantially correct and this report will build on those as we develop an analysis of your current situation.

Al-Qaida aims

In the first report we saw your short-term aims as:


  • Removal of foreign (especially US) forces from the Islamic world, with Saudi Arabia as the priority

  • Termination of the House of Saud as the unacceptably corrupt and illegitimate Keeper of the Two Holy Places

  • Establishment of an independent Palestine that might involve the termination of the state of Israel

Your long-term aim is the establishment of legitimate Islamic governance across the middle east as a prelude to wider global conversion. In this context you regard all regional regimes as elitist, corrupt and almost invariably supported by western states.

Policies and tactics

We saw a primary aim of the 9/11 attacks as being to draw the United States into a ground war in Afghanistan, sucking its forces in with the same effect as that on the Soviet Union two decades earlier. In the event, you misjudged the US ability to use air power, special forces and the Northern Alliance to bring about the termination of the Taliban regime. This - apart from the failure of your associates to destroy the World Trade Center in 1993 - represents your only major error to date.

At the same time, the unwillingness of the United States to engage in a full-scale occupation of Afghanistan has been more than counter-balanced by its occupation of Iraq. Indeed, this has produced a situation that is vastly superior for your consortium than any ongoing guerrilla war in Afghanistan. To have the United States thoroughly enmeshed in a failing attempt to control an Arab state is as extraordinary as it was unexpected.

Moreover, this is not just any “Arab state”. This is the successor to the most integrated and successful of the Islamic caliphates – we are now witnessing the truly unbelievable occupation of the former capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, Baghdad, by neo-Christian forces - a “gift” to your consortium that is frankly difficult to exaggerate.

We would add, in passing, that Afghanistan itself is hardly a success for the United States and its coalition partners. Currently there are around 20,000 foreign combat troops tied down in what is largely a narco-state. Your Taliban colleagues are having variable success in maintaining their guerrilla campaign, but warlordism combined with endemic underdevelopment can still give you hope of an appropriately Islamic renaissance.

We would also add that we still see much potential in Pakistan. The attitude of the current Indian government is not helpful to you – certainly less so than its hawkish predecessor - but the endemic problems of marginalisation in Pakistan remain a powerful aid to further recruitment into your local affiliates, and the current Musharraf regime has yet to acquire the stability that it seeks.

Bearing in mind these developments, all of which were evident six months ago, the main conclusion of our first report was that it was hugely in your interest to see George W Bush re-elected. Indeed, we went so far as to suggest that the detention of your leader by US forces might be a necessary step to ensuring this. We appreciate that this proposal was not well received, and we are grateful that you have still turned to us for a further report. We will refrain from recommending specific personal initiatives in future.

The current status of al-Qaida

Although Afghanistan and Pakistan remain significant, we see it more useful to concentrate on those regions of most use to the further development of your consortium. The most important of these, by far, is the middle east. This is best done in the context of a brief assessment of the current status of your consortium.

In one sense, you may appear weaker than six months ago and much weaker than at the time of the Madrid attack in March 2004. Apart from Taba and Jakarta and some incidents in Saudi Arabia, your affiliates have been relatively quiet, and you continue to suffer some attrition through the death or detention of some elements of your leadership.

We have to say that we find this a simplistic and inaccurate assessment. What has actually happened is that al-Qaida has undergone a progressive metamorphosis into a loose network of affiliated and associated groups, with a less clear hierarchy but with a much greater level of general and specific support. The former embraces elements of the worldwide trend towards increasing anti-Americanism, especially among Islamic communities. The latter involves substantial financial aid as well as recruitment of paramilitaries.

It is interesting that Iraq is not yet a significant region of operations for your affiliates – barely 5% of the paramilitaries operating against US forces in Iraq are coming from outside the country. At the same time, you do have some associates who are gaining firsthand combat experience against American forces there, with Iraq even replacing Afghanistan in this regard. Furthermore, there is every probability that Iraq will indeed become a more general “magnet” for paramilitaries, although such a trend should be measured in years not months.


A matter of particular concern to you is the risk of some kind of resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict. We think you are worrying unnecessarily. Our analysis is that there is little commitment within the Ariel Sharon administration for the concessions necessary for any substantive progress. The withdrawal from Gaza is primarily because of the security costs of maintaining a few thousand settlers in a markedly hostile environment, and a post-withdrawal Gaza will certainly not be allowed to develop an independent economy.

The West Bank is riddled with major settlements, the wall has created facts on the ground, the entire territory is little more than a series of open prisons with scores of roadblocks and endemic controls on movement and the economy is near-moribund. The new Palestinian president, Abu Mazen, will be in an impossible position unless quite extraordinary pressure is put on the Sharon administration. We do not see European states having the necessary leverage and we certainly see no real interest in this in Washington, not least because of the Christian Zionist phenomenon that we discuss below.

In short, there may be an appearance of progress in the coming months, but we do not expect it to be sustained.

European policies

While there are pronounced differences between key European states (such as Germany and France) and Washington on Israel/Palestine, Iraq and the conduct of the wider “war on terror”, European influence is greatly weakened by the close association of Britain and Italy with the current US administration. Such differences are particularly useful to you and it would be unwise to encourage any action that might lead to a change of government policy in either country.

If, for example, you have associates planning any kind of action within the United Kingdom, we would suggest you actively discourage them. It is frankly difficult to predict the effect of a major attack in the run-up to a UK election, but it could well weaken the current strong links between Downing Street and the White House, to your clear disadvantage.

Western analysis

You will appreciate that we believe that the Bush administration is almost entirely misreading the situation facing it, not just in Iraq but in its wider "war on terror". Even so, we should consider whether there are other analysts that are more effective in their assessments. The news here is both bad and good. It is bad in the sense that there are indeed some well-informed commentators active in the United States. In terms of overall assessments we would point to Juan Cole (Informed Comment), in relation to al-Qaida there are people such as Bruce Hoffman (Rand-Washington) and in relation to Iraq there are many, but most notably Anthony Cordesman (CSIS). In their different ways, these and others are producing informed and largely accurate assessments.

The good news is that they are almost entirely ignored by opinion formers and decision-makers within the current Washington power-base. Even so, one of our concerns is that such analysts might come to be taken seriously as even the Bush administration is forced to recognise the gathering failure of its Iraq policy. We are, for example, worried that the recent decision to send a senior and somewhat independent retired general to assess the Iraq predicament may be an early indication of such a trend.

However, we would now like to discuss two very different issues that seem so central to us yet are, fortunately for you, almost entirely ignored by western analysts. Both of these issues are working powerfully in your favour and both make it unlikely that there will be a fundamental change of policy in Washington, at least in the relatively near future. These issues are Christian Zionism and Gulf oil resources.

Christian Zionism

Apart from a handful of Christian theologians and political analysts, the evolution and political impact of Christian Zionism remains largely discounted, although it does much to underpin support for Bush and the neo-conservative vision. Some tens of millions of fundamentalist Christians support this outlook in the United States and they form a core part of the current support base for the Republican party, even if that support leads to a certain unease among the more patrician Republicans of George Bush Senior's generation.

Christian Zionism is rooted in dispensation theology as developed principally by John Darby in the 1800s and popularised by Cyrus Scofield and the Scofield Bible of the 1900s. In this fundamentalist hermeneutics, God gave a dispensation to the Jews to prepare the land of Israel for his earthly reign, and Israel is therefore an essential prerequisite for the “end of days”. Christian Zionism in the United States is hugely important to present-day Israeli politics. It underpins the Zionist lobby in the United States much more than the American Jewish community and is the main reason why we believe that Sharon and his associates will not be under pressure to make serious concessions, even with a post-Arafat Palestinian regime.

Furthermore, Christian Zionism is intrinsically anti-Islamic, and its current strength does much to underpin the Bush administration's current tactics in its “war on terror”.

We would suggest that you commission a separate report on Christian Zionism (which we would be willing to undertake) and pay much more attention to its outlook in developing your strategy, especially in relation to Iraq, Syria and Israel/Palestine.

Gulf oil

If the significance of Christian Zionism is largely ignored we have to confess sheer astonishment at the lack of attention given by most western analysts to the relevance of Gulf oil. This one small region of the world embraces two-thirds of the world’s most important single energy resource, the reserves are high quality, easy to extract and export and very low in cost, especially when compared to the Caspian basin and Siberia.

Every major industrialised and industrialising region of the world is becoming more and more dependent on Gulf oil, not just western Europe and Japan but increasingly the United States and China and, in the future, India. US military strategists have long recognised the importance of Gulf oil, with the 1973-74 and 1979-80 oil crises leading to the establishment first of the Rapid Deployment Force and then US Central Command.

We are well aware that you fully appreciate the importance of this factor and will not elaborate further on the background, but our point is that this resource dynamic gives you exceptional room for policy development in the long term. We know full well that al-Qaida’s thinking is measured in decades, with little expectation of an early achievement of its main goals. Our point here is that the utilisation of Gulf oil should also be seen in terms of decades, not years, and has two implications.

The first is that the US military simply will not leave Iraq. There may be changes in policy and posture, there may be an abandonment of the cities, there may be a retreat to fortified bases adjacent to the main oil-producing regions of the country - but the United States will not leave. To do so would be a foreign-policy reversal of extraordinary proportions and could even indicate the demise of the New American Century project. It is, bluntly, unthinkable.

The second implication is that, in the wider Gulf region, US military influence will be a long-term feature of the entire US military posture but will also be a focus of interest for China as its own economy expands.

For both these reasons, we regard the Gulf region - not Afghanistan or even Pakistan - as at the core of your engagement with the United States, and we would expect you to focus your strategy substantially on this region.

The second Bush administration

In terms of the global development of your movement, the overall prospects are very favourable. Determined efforts are now being made to embed the neo-conservative paradigm within US political culture. More generally, the success of the Bush administration in retaining the presidency while controlling both houses of Congress has convinced those advocates of the New American Century that their time has come.

Indeed, much of their current work is intended to ensure that this worldview will prevail in the long-term, and they see the first two years of the second Bush administration as the most important period for ensuring this. This, in their view, is an historic opportunity.

Within this context, the conduct of the “war on terror” is unlikely to change – long-term detentions without trial, torture, massive civilian casualties, destruction of cities such as Fallujah and many other actions will continue, with all of them to your substantial advantage as new recruits join your cause. Moreover, increasing support among Islamic communities in western countries means that you are far less dependent on weak and failing states – in essence your movement is now becoming truly transnational.

Extending your influence

At the same time, if one of your initial aims is the wholesale eviction of US forces from the middle east, then you should embrace the idea that defeat for US forces in Iraqi cities is not enough. Even if so defeated, there is likely to be a continuing US presence in heavily defended sites within Iraq to ensure continuing influence in the region. While the continuing rise of anti-Americanism might eventually lead to a US withdrawal, this might take some years.

It follows that you should consider what strategies might make a US defeat more decisive and immediate. Our recommendation is that you look at ways to ensure that the United States actually expands its military actions in order to become even more enmeshed in the region. It would be particularly useful to see US military action extend to at least one other country, with the essential choice being between Iran and Syria.

While the Iranian regime is anathema to US neo-conservatives, we are not convinced that US action against the regime will serve your purposes. It may well strengthen the Iranian theocracy, and that is not a form of governance that shares your vision in any substantial way. Indeed, in many ways it is a rival worldview.

It is true that any American action against Iran would further incite anti-American feelings, but we believe your interests would be much better served if you could help ensure that Syria becomes a primary focus for the extension of US activism in the region. Neo-conservative elements in Washington are already advocating this, especially as they seek to find an explanation for the predicament of US forces in Iraq.

Our assessment is that any cross-border military actions into Syria by US forces will immediately escalate to a wider confrontation, with this possibly involving Israel. While the Syrian regime itself may try to avoid large-scale conflict, our point is that any substantive involvement of US forces beyond Iraq will increase opposition to the US presence in the wider region, of inevitable benefit to your longer-term aims. How you seek to encourage such involvement is up to you, but we have little doubt that you have the resources to do so, should you so choose.

Two caveats

While you will appreciate that much of our report is optimistic as to your prospects, we feel it necessary to raise two concerns. The first relates to the conclusion of our July 2004 report – that your progress up to then had more to do with the mistakes of your opponents than to the prowess of your movement. This is even more the case now, as the second Bush administration takes shape. It follows that you must not in any sense become complacent in terms of your strategic planning. Our comments about Syria give you one example of where you should be more active.

Our second concern is much more general and relates to your long-term aims. A movement such as yours may draw key leadership and activist allegiance from relatively educated sectors of your support communities but you remain fundamentally dependent on a much wider base of loyalty that draws heavily from marginalised populations.

In this respect you are greatly aided by the current and long-term trend towards a more divided global society. The socio-economic divide continues to grow, yet marginalised majorities are increasingly aware of their own marginalisation, not least because of improved literacy and communications. We suspect that this combination is at the root of other anti-elite insurgencies such as that in Nepal, and we have no doubt that it is a particularly powerful recruiting factor for your own movement.

The problem is that some elite states are just beginning to recognise the significance of these trends, long known to western and southern campaigners and activists. There are even some indications that one or two governments feel it necessary to take action on issues such as debt, trade and development assistance.

It is just possible that a substantial movement might develop that would begin to address the core global inequalities. We suspect that if this was to happen, it might, in due course, have some damaging impact on your support base. Fortunately for your movement, the chances of this happening are slim – Europe is insufficiently united on this issue and the current Washington power elite would be strongly opposed to substantive change.


In our first report we pointed to the risk that political developments in the west might encourage policy changes that could adversely affect your progress. These might include:


  • moves towards genuine democracy in Iraq under United Nations auspices
  • effective pressure on Israel to seek peace
  • withdrawal of US bases from central Asia
  • genuine post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan
  • pressure of Arab autocracies to modernise and democratise.

With Bush’s re-election we do not regard any of these as likely problems for you, and we would therefore conclude that your prospects are good for the short and long term. The neo-conservative worldview is likely to become deeply entrenched in the US security paradigm, support for Israel is unlikely to diminish and the massive significance of Gulf oil virtually guarantees the long-term involvement of the United States in your heartlands. You can rest assured that your support base is secure.

We have, though, to repeat our earlier conclusion that your prospects result primarily from the actions of your opponents. Those actions may have been prompted by your own activities, especially the 9/11 attacks, but it is the effect of your activities in concert with the specific security paradigm that was evolving in Washington that has been of such use to you.

You are, after all, in the early stages of a decades-long confrontation, and early “success” should not in any way cause you to underestimate the problems that lie ahead. Fortunately for your consortium, the progressive embedding of neo-conservative and Christian theocratic ideologies in the United States is likely to work hugely in your favour, helping to increase the chances of achieving your overall aims. There is always a risk that counteracting forces may develop in Europe or the United States, and this is an issue that requires careful and continuing analysis. For the moment, though, this should cause you little concern.

South Waziristan
13 January 2005


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