Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Al Qaeda vs. The People

Daniel Drezner writes in a post in Foreign Policy arguing against Niall Ferguson's latest article in Newsweek. I can sympathise with Drezner in one way; Ferguson has become more polemical in his writings - but thats probably why he's writing in Newsweek and not a  journal. Drezner's criticism is mostly focused to Ferguson's claim that "If radical Islamism is a declining force around the world, [he] hasn’t noticed." Drezner writes
Psst... Niall.... just because you haven't noticed does not mean that radical Islamist movements haven't declined. Last I checked, groups like Al Qaeda were waning in popularity among Muslim populations (to the point where Osama bin Laden mused about renaming Al Qaeda). Oh, and if you failed to notice, you should know that Osama bin Laden is still dead.
It doesn't take a genius to figure where Drezner has gone wrong; while movements strive for popular support that does not measure the threat or the capability they have. It is undeniable that support for Al Qaeda is dropping - advocating a Taliban-style authoritarian rule whole killing scores of civilians does that - but in terms of operational capability that does not mean there is a significant decrease in their force. Bruce Hoffman makes the point that Red Army Faction had almost zero public support and yet managed to inflict serious damage for almost three decades.  The same applies to Al Qaeda; Peter Bergen goes even further saying that "Al Qaeda values one recruit more than a thousand supporters." I don't know if Ferguson was talking about populations or movements, but Drezner conflates and confuses the two. 

Al Qaeda has increased its networks from 7 in 2008-9 to 11 networks, globally in 2011. When Al Qaeda operated in 2001, its membership numbered only something like 200 people. Leah Farrell the former Senior Counterterrorism Intelligence Analyst with the Australian Federal Police in her recent Foreign Affairs article stated that
Despite nearly a decade of war, al Qaeda is stronger today than when it carried out the 9/11 attacks.. Today, it has more members, greater geographic reach, and a level of ideological sophistication and influence it lacked ten years ago.
Peter Bergen and Bruce Hoffman in their 2010 study 'Assessing the Terrorist Threat' come to a similiar conclusion:
Overly optimistic arguments about al-Qaeda’s demise based on the attrition of itsleadership overlook three key points. First, al-Qaeda has always been a small, eliteorganization...  Second, al-Qaeda’s ideology and tactics have spread to awide range of militant groups in South Asia, all of which are relatively large... Finally, al-Qaeda Central has seeded a number of franchises around the Middle East and North Africa [... which] has now allowed them to co-opt American citizens in the broader global al-Qaeda battlefield.
Drezdner also makes a ridiculous point in linking the killing of Bin Laden with further proof that radical Islamism is on the decrease. While it is certainly true that Bin Laden had certain operational control over Al Qaeda Central and its affiliates activities and that his death is a strategic gain for the West, that does not diminish the threat of Al Qaeda. Its to entirely misunderstand the way Al Qaeda makes its decisions;
al Qaeda’s second-tier leadership manages most of the group’s interaction with its subsidiaries, the removal of either Zawahiri or bin Laden would not overly affect the unity among the organization’s core, branch, and franchises, nor would it impede communication among them.. Messages from the branch and the franchises to the core then generally go through al Qaeda’s second-tier leadership, which briefs Zawahiri, bin Laden, or both if the issue is urgent — that is, involves gaining permission for external operations or resolving a conflict between or within the subsidiaries.
None of this contradicts the recent evidence which finds that 
Information confirming bin Laden’s active role in al Qaeda continues to emerge, painting the portrait of a “micro-manager,” as an unidentified U.S. official quoted in ProPublica, called him. “He was down in the weeds [determining] best operatives, best targets, best timing.” And U.S. intelligence analysts pouring over bin Laden’s personal diary have concluded that he was involved in “every recent major al Qaeda threat.” He also remained involved in planning future attacks...
Underestimating the threat posed by Al Qaeda is dangerous; the thought that Al Qaeda was not an organisation but an ideology seems to have subsided in the face of overwhelming evidence but overblown arguments based on the death of Bin Laden and the decline in popular appeal seem to be re-emerging. 

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