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Is al-Qaida winning?

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
7 November 2002

Fourteen months after the attacks on New York and Washington, what is the state of the ‘war on terror’? It is particularly appropriate to ask this now, with so much of the attention being focused on Iraq, including the imminent call-up of reserves for the British armed forces.

Any effort to undertake an independent analysis of the progress of this other war comes to some uncomfortable conclusions, so much so that when analysts do so, there is a tendency to shoot the messenger rather than listen to the message.

Afghanistan

Take Afghanistan first. The Taliban regime was dispersed rather than destroyed, with the United States using re-armed Northern Alliance forces as its ground troops, in combination with the extensive use of air power, the latter killing some thousands of Afghan civilians in the process. Many Taliban elements melted away into their own villages and towns in Afghanistan or Pakistan, with their weapons intact. During the war itself, there were few occasions when Taliban militia were engaged in open combat – in most cases they simply retreated.

There were even fewer occasions when al-Qaida militia were engaged in combat, and there remain suspicions that many of them may have even dispersed before 11 September last year. Certainly, whenever al-Qaida training camps were occupied by US or other forces, they were found to be deserted.

Repeated attempts in recent months to target Taliban and other militias have failed, and even large-scale operations such as ‘Clean Sweep’, involving about 2,000 US and local troops supported by air power, have failed to capture or kill more than a handful of militia members.

Only a small proportion of the Taliban and al-Qaida leadership have been killed or taken into custody and the great majority of the inmates of Camp X-Ray have turned out to be lower level operatives, with many now being released.

Within Afghanistan itself, the International Security Assistance Force has brought some stability to Kabul, but in much of the rest of the country, warlordism has returned with a vengeance, often aided by the flood of light arms cascading through the country as a result of the re-arming of the Northern Alliance and other groups opposed to the Taliban last year.

Some countries have provided assistance, not least Britain, and India’s recent substantial loan offer is welcome, but realistic international aid for state building has been woefully inadequate, putting President Karzai’s administration in some difficulty. This is made worse by problems with attempting to create a national Afghan army, and by the presence of private armies controlled by individual ministers, especially the minister of defence, General Fahim Khan.

In recent months, a cabinet minister and a vice-president have been assassinated and there have been two assassination attempts against President Karzai, who is now guarded by US special forces. This week, President Karzai sacked a number of regional officials, primarily on the grounds of corruption, but he has refrained from taking on the more powerful warlords, many of whom are gaining from revenues accruing from the rapid increase in opium production.

Perhaps most worrying are the indications that Taliban forces are reorganising along the Pakistan border, a process that may have been made easier by the recent successes of Islamic parties in elections in the Pakistani provinces bordering Afghanistan. In one significant development, reported in the International Herald Tribune (4 November), Pentagon officials say that while some of the recently uncovered weapons caches were those left behind by retreating Taliban forces, ‘some are fresh caches planted by units preparing guerrilla attacks against the government of President Karzai.’

al-Qaida

If the situation in Afghanistan is problematic, the status of al-Qaida should cause even more concern. This is an organisation that was supposed to have been dispersed and thoroughly disrupted by a combination of the war on Afghanistan, numerous arrests across the world and the extensive cooperation of security and intelligence agencies in numerous countries.

There certainly has been disruption or prevention of some major operations including:

  • planned attacks on US embassies in Rome and Paris;
  • an attempt to shoot down a US warplane in Saudi Arabia using a portable surface-to-air missile;
  • a plan to attack western warships in the Straits of Gibraltar;
  • the attempted bombing of a US passenger jet;
  • a plan to develop radiological weapons for use in the United States; and
  • a major attack in Singapore using multiple powerful truck bombs, possibly aimed at embassies and the financial district.

From what is known of the Singapore operation, it would have been on the scale of the 9/11 attacks, might also have involved an attack on Changi Airport and would have had a profound economic impact as well as a great human costs.

It can certainly be argued that the very fact that these operations were all prevented means that al-Qaida must be in retreat, yet the very fact that they were attempted means that the organisation and its associates have been seeking to maintain a level of activity that is actually higher than the period prior to 9/11.

In any case, what is even more significant is the catalogue of actual attacks:

  • a bomb attack on the US consulate in Karachi;
  • the shooting of worshippers at the church in the diplomatic compound in Islamabad;
  • the killing of French naval technicians in Karachi;
  • the killing of Christian aid workers in Pakistan;
  • the attack on the synagogue in Tunisia, killing German tourists and local people;
  • the killing of a US special forces soldier in the Philippines and two major bomb attacks in the same country;
  • a bomb attack on a French oil tanker off the Yemeni coast;
  • last weekend’s attack on a US oil company’s helicopter taking-off from Sana’a Airport in Yemen;
  • the murder of a US diplomat in Amman;
  • two attacks on US marines in a secure training area in Kuwait; and
  • the devastating bomb attack on the Sari nightclub in Bali.

It is when these are all put together, as so rarely happens, that one gets some idea of the extent of the activity.

By no means all of these are actions directly carried out by the al-Qaida network – a number of them may be down to local groups working in no more than a loose affiliation with al-Qaida. The point is that these attacks are now happening almost weekly, in several different countries, and they collectively suggest that the anti-American and anti-western mood is showing no signs whatsoever of diminishing.

Furthermore, the al-Qaida organisation itself appears to have developed a more dispersed leadership, with as many as six significant people involved. It is maintaining support in many countries and is successfully moving financial and other resources around the world.

Prospects

For western analysts seeking an overview, it is not a promising picture, and there are two factors that may further increase support for al-Qaida and its associates. One is the current political crisis in Israel, notably the withdrawal of the Labor Party from Sharon’s coalition. Whatever the outcome of the current upheavals, the most likely result will be the adoption of more hard-line policies towards the Palestinians as Israel moves further to the right.

Although al-Qaida has had little or no involvement with the Palestinian cause, it gains regional support every time that Israel takes military action in the occupied territories. This extends to further opposition to the United States, which is seen as Israel’s sponsor and champion in the region.

The other factor, inevitably, is the coming war with Iraq. Here again, al-Qaida and its associates have little or no connection with the secular Iraqi regime, but the movement of substantial US forces into the region, and the impending operation to terminate the Iraqi regime, is seen as a veritable proof of al-Qaida’s oft-repeated claim that the United States and its western allies are determined to control the region.

In such circumstances it is hardly surprising that Saudi Arabia is once again dubious about allowing the US armed forces to use its territory for an attack on Iraq. Nor should it be a surprise that the Kuwaiti authorities have just closed down the offices of the independent and very popular al-Jazeera TV network in Kuwait City. According to the BBC, a senior Kuwaiti Government official said the closure was due to a ‘lack of professionalism and neutrality when dealing with Kuwait issues.’ He denied that it was a matter of censorship – ‘I would stress Kuwait’s belief in democracy and freedom,’ he said.

As far as the future of the ‘war on terror’ is concerned, an overall picture is emerging of a loose alliance of anti-American and anti-western groups, many of them connected to al-Qaida, but collectively active in a number of countries. The frequency of the attacks indicates a level of activity that may actually be on the increase, and it certainly does appear to be the case that support for such groups is at least as strong as 14 months ago, and very probably stronger. On that basis, any talk of the ‘war on terror’ being a success is a very long way from reality.

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