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FDD Remembers - The 9/11 Compendium - Continued


Know Your Enemy
We’ve fought al-Qaeda seriously for 10 years. Iran has been fighting us for over 30
By Mark Dubowitz

10 years after September 11th, the Islamic Republic of Iran constitutes the most serious threat to American national security, and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is the world’s most deadly terrorist organization.

Under the leadership of the IRGC, the Iranian regime has waged a low-intensity war on the United States for over 30 years, developing a clandestine nuclear weapons program, producing increasingly advanced ballistic missiles, and sponsoring acts of terrorism abroad. Through its terrorist proxies, Iran has killed Americans -- from the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut to the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing to quite possibly September 11th, via the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s terrorist mastermind and Iran’s liaison with al-Qaeda in the 1990s.

Iran continues to support allied regimes and terrorist surrogates ranging from Bashar al-Assad’s Shiite Alawite government in Syria to Hezbollah to the Palestinian Sunni groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as well as Shiite militias in Iraq, and lately even their one-time enemies the Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan.

Unlike al-Qaeda, the Revolutionary Guards have the full support of an oil-rich nation, can travel abroad on diplomatic passports, and can hide their operatives in Iranian embassies all over the world, as they did in the attacks on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992, and the Jewish cultural center there in 1994.

The Guards also have full representation at the United Nations, OPEC and other international bodies. Indeed, a sanctioned Guards commander is currently OPEC’s president and will be attending its meetings in Vienna. Iran’s foreign minister and nuclear agency head, both of whom are also subject to international sanctions, travel regularly to meetings in Geneva, Vienna and New York. The U.S. and the European Union, which pass travel bans to great fanfare, ignore them completely when sanctioned IRGC officials travel to meetings of international organizations.

Al-Qaeda can only dream of such influence.

As my colleague Emanuele Ottolenghi details in his upcoming book, The Pasdaran: Inside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the IRGC is not only the preeminent military and security force within Iran. It also has become the dominant economic force, with hundreds of companies involved in every sector of Iran’s economy. Unlike al-Qaeda, which raises funds from sympathizers in the Gulf and elsewhere, the IRGC wins billions of dollars in no-bid contracts in energy, transportation, automobile, and public works projects, and controls crude oil exports worth over $100 billion a year.

The Obama administration deserves credit for establishing a broad, multilateral sanctions regime targeting the IRGC. These sanctions have cost Iran over $60 billion in energy investment, helped to keep Iran’s estimated $4.4 trillion of natural gas from reaching market, and made it enormously complicated for Iran to receive payment for its oil exports, particularly from China, India and South Korea.

Sanctions against Tehran however have so far failed to change its policies, because they have become an end in themselves, rather than means of making the regime vulnerable to other measures. Washington and Brussels have never followed through with a strategy to translate economic pressure into material support for the millions of Iranian dissidents who could overthrow the regime without foreign military intervention.

More than 30 years after Iran declared war on the United States -- and on this tenth anniversary of 9/11 – Washington must recognize the centrality of the Iranian threat to its interests in the Middle East and beyond, and provide a comprehensive approach to counter it.

Mark Dubowitz is executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he heads projects on Iran and Syria sanctions, and on the use of technology to encourage democratic change.

Catch and Release
Guantanamo alumni are some of our greatest threats
By Thomas Joscelyn

After Osama bin Laden’s demise in Abbottabad, Pakistan, many Americans speculated that al-Qaeda’s days were numbered. Bin Laden’s death in early May undoubtedly weakens al-Qaeda, and probably more than any other kill or capture in the war on terror, but al-Qaeda and its allies have not been defeated. The jihadist terror network has continually found new pools of talent from which it can replace fallen leaders, albeit with individuals of lower skill. One pool of talent, however, is highly-skilled: former Guantanamo detainees.

Senior leadership slots in both al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Taliban are filled by former Guantanamo detainees. Said al-Shihri, the current #2 of AQAP, is a former Guantanamo detainee. So are AQAP’s chief Mufti (theological guide) and some of its military commanders. Mullah Mohammad Omar’s top military commander is a former Guantanamo detainee known as Mullah Zakir, who is especially ruthless.

U.S. and U.K. military officials consider Zakir the most dangerous Taliban commander on the planet. This Gitmo alumnus has led operations that have killed as many as a dozen U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan, and an untold number of Afghans as well. According to my intelligence sources, Zakir and several other former Guantanamo detainees sit on the Taliban’s Shura council, which holds regular meetings in Pakistan and directs the organization’s operations.

These are just a few examples chosen from many. In December 2010, the Obama administration announced that 150 former Guantanamo detainees were either “confirmed” or “suspected” recidivists. In other words, they had gone back to the battlefield. That number has surely grown since.

How can this be? Why did the U.S. free scores of men who quickly returned to terrorism, some of them to senior leadership positions?

One answer, among several, is the U.S. government’s decision to repatriate hundreds of detainees who were determined to be possible or definite security threats. As international pressure to close Guantanamo grew, the Bush administration decided to transfer many detainees to the custody of their home countries, despite U.S. intelligence professionals’ concerns about the danger these detainees posed.

For example, my analysis of leaked Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessments revealed that the U.S. government has transferred more than 180 “high” risk detainees. These are detainees who JTF-GTMO determined were “likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests, and allies.” One of these “high” risk detainees is the aforementioned Said al-Shihri.

In a threat assessment dated April 13, 2007, JTF-GTMO recommended that al-Shihri be retained in U.S. custody. Several months later, in November 2007, he was repatriated to Saudi Arabia. 15 months after that he appeared in a propaganda video announcing the establishment of AQAP, which the Obama administration rightly describes as the most dangerous al-Qaeda affiliate.

My analysis has also revealed that more than 240 “medium” risk detainees have been transferred from Guantanamo. These are detainees who JTF-GTMO determined “may pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies.” Mullah Zakir was deemed a “medium” as opposed to “high” risk, despite having known ties to senior Taliban leaders. Intelligence analysts thought Zakir was more dangerous than the evidence revealed, but they couldn’t prove it. So, Washington decided to rely on the government of Afghanistan to keep tabs on him, and he quickly rejoined the fight.

The lesson is simple: If the U.S. will not hold suspected terrorists under the laws of war, no other nation can be counted on to do so either.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an editor of the Long War Journal.

Lashkar-e-Taiba is Not the Next al-Qaeda
Contextualizing the threat
By Stephen Tankel

In Mumbai in November 2008, Lashkar-e-Taiba executed one of the most successful terrorist spectaculars since September 11th, signaling its capability to wreak havoc in South Asia. Its inclusion of Western targets suggested to some that Lashkar might become the next al-Qaeda. While the two groups share important commonalities, in some respects, they’re defined more by their differences.

Both Lashkar and al-Qaeda are pan-Islamist entities, but al-Qaeda Central prioritizes global jihad against America, as well as revolutionary jihads against Muslim governments, including that of Pakistan. Lashkar, meanwhile, is motivated more by classical jihadism, which centers on liberating occupied Muslims lands. Although its fighters are active in Afghanistan, Lashkar’s leaders consider Indian-administered Kashmir to be part of Pakistan, and hence the most important land to liberate. Lashkar’s leaders also retain an element of nationalism, and consequently the Pakistani security establishment still views them as its most reliable proxy against India.

The biggest distinction between al-Qaeda and Lashkar relates to waging jihad against Pakistan. Lashkar leaders castigate al-Qaeda as takfiri and argue that fighting against fellow Muslims precludes a focus on jihad against the unbelievers. Al-Qaeda operatives, on the other hand, condemn Lashkar for waging the ISI’s jihad, as opposed to Allah’s.

Lashkar’s opposition to “Near Enemy” jihad is ideological, but also practical. The group has benefited from various types of state support since its inception for its jihad against India. Its leaders place great emphasis on the importance of dawa (calling people to Islam) and so they channeled much of that aid into a robust social welfare infrastructure, run under the auspices of its above-ground political wing, Jamaat-ud-Dawa. This enables the group to promote reformism in Pakistan through non-violent means. Because it provides services al-Qaeda cannot, this gives Lashkar more staying power.

Lashkar can also use this infrastructure to support its militant activities. The group enjoys more freedom of movement than other outfit in Pakistan, especially al-Qaeda. Lashkar can raise funds relatively openly through Jamaat-ud-Dawa, and other legitimate front organizations, and its commanders need not worry for their safety to the degree that those of al-Qaeda do. Lashkar also enjoys the use of several training camps in areas under Pakistani control.

But state support comes at a price. In the 1990s, the group needed the state to build up its infrastructure, whereas now it relies on the security establishment not to tear it down. Thus, to quote one former member of the group, Lashkar is still “tamed by the ISI,” and this limits its military adventurism. In the near-term, its biggest threat remains to India and hence to the stability of south Asia.

However, Lashkar has contributed to the jihad against America and its allies since 9/11. Like al-Qaeda, it has international reach and transnational attack capabilities. By the time of the Mumbai attacks, its networks stretched across South Asia, the Persian Gulf and Europe, and even as far afield as Australia and North America. Lashkar has used these networks to provide ad hoc support for al-Qaeda led terrorist attacks. It also has proven willing to strike Western targets directly, as it did in Mumbai, or when it attempted an attack on Australia in 2003.

Despite these contributions, and the fact that its fighters are active in Afghanistan, Lashkar’s leaders face increasing challenges to their legitimacy because of their India-centric priorities and, especially, their close ties to the Pakistani army and ISI. This puts pressure on them to act, either unilaterally, or by supporting additional attacks against the U.S. and its allies. It also heightens the threat that if Lashkar fails to act, individuals and factions within it will use the group’s capabilities to pursue their own operations. Because the group’s former members do not always cut ties with it, its alumni network is a potent force in its own right.

The longer the insurgencies last in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the more difficult it will become to control the next generation of Lashkar militants. However Lashkar’s fighters evolve, they will not become al-Qaeda 2.0, but they could pose a growing threat to the United States and its allies.

Stephen Tankel is an assistant professor at American University and a non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Mission: In Progress
Drones are a powerful weapon, but not a winning strategy
By Bill Roggio

In the 10 years since the United States has been fighting al-Qaeda across the world, Washington’s view on how to attack the terror group and its affiliates has changed radically.

As U.S. conventional forces fight protracted, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the strategy of attacking states that harbor or support terror networks has fallen by the wayside. The Obama administration believes we can defeat al-Qaeda by killing its top leaders in pinprick strikes in their safe havens in Pakistan’s remote tribal areas.

The CIA regularly employs unmanned Predator and Reaper drone aircraft to strike at al-Qaeda leaders in North and South Waziristan. Since operational tempo rose in the summer of 2008, these strikes have killed some of al-Qaeda’s top leaders, including Abu Laith al-Libbi, Mustafa Abu Yazid, and Abu Khabbab al-Masri. Obama administration officials now believe that al-Qaeda can be defeated if only three to five more of its leaders are killed.

Yet as a senior U.S. intelligence official who is skeptical of the strategy often reminds me, Washington’s over-reliance on drones in Pakistan’s tribal areas is a major tactical weakness. The drones, he says, are “efficient in killing leaders based in those areas, but not sufficient in dismantling al-Qaeda.”

Even though the strikes kill senior leaders, tribal areas remain firmly under the control of al-Qaeda allies such as the Haqqani Network, the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan (TTP), and other independent Taliban leaders.

And al-Qaeda’s leaders are not based solely in the Waziristans. U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden himself in Abbottabad, far from the tribal areas, and many of the top al-Qaeda top leaders captured in Pakistan since 9/11 have been found in its major cities. Pakistani cooperation is vital both to capturing al-Qaeda operatives in those cities, and sustaining the drone strikes. Without Pakistan’s permission, the CIA would be hard-pressed to strike outside the tribal areas, and the intense domestic fallout after the bin Laden raid shows how difficult it is for U.S. forces to stray outside of approved areas.

Yet Pakistan is literally infested with terror groups, many of which its military and its notorious Inter-Services Intelligence directorate support. While many analysts dismiss the importance of so-called “domestic” Pakistani terror groups, they often ignore the fact that these groups provide important support to al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda’s alliances with the Haqqani Network and the TTP, and other terror groups enable it to replace leaders who are killed in the drone strikes.

The bottom line is that the drone strikes can only do so much. They are efficient at hitting al-Qaeda leaders in the tribal areas and keeping them off balance, but with key elements based outside of the Waziristans, they cannot deal a death blow to the group. And as Pakistan distances itself from the U.S. in the wake of the bin Laden raid and other dust-ups, our ability to round up al-Qaeda operatives inside Pakistan proper diminishes.

In the past, U.S. leaders have been quick to declare al-Qaeda dead or irrelevant, only to discover that it has adapted to our new methods. That’s why drones remain only one of many weapons in the arsenal we deploy against al-Qaeda. They are not, in themselves, a strategy.

Bill Roggio is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and editor of the Long War Journal.

10 Years After 9/11
The late Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid explained the radical ideology we face
by R. James Woolsey

Many religions over the centuries have seen one of their sects spawn a totalitarian political movement. Christianity has seen the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem witch trials. Judaism has seen the Zealots and the Sicarii of the first century. Shintoism has seen fanaticism, including the Kamikazes. Islam has seen what the late President of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid, called “a Wahhabi or Muslim Brotherhood view,” as well as the murderous totalitarianism of Iran’s radical Shi’ites, especially the Hojatieh cult that seeks to bring about the end of days.

The most difficult aspect of what is probably best called “The Long War of the 21st Century” is the combination between the religious roots of the totalitarian political ideology of our enemies and the ideologues’ huge oil-fueled wealth, especially in Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, in Iran.

How serious is this combination? Join me in a thought experiment. Say the Inquisition still rules Spain with Torquemada, protected by his patrons Ferdinand and Isabella, gleefully burning at the stake Jews, Muslims, and Christians who do not toe his line. Then assume that over a quarter of the world’s oil reserves are discovered beneath Spain and that Torquemada’s agents -- rolling in oil-funded gold -- begin the process of taking over the vast majority of the world’s Christian institutions.

Impossible? It is worth noting that in the Looming Tower -- Lawrence Wright’s superb history of 9/11 – it is documented that, with only 1-2% of the world’s Muslims, Saudi Arabia controls about 90% of the world’s Islamic institutions, including its schools. One example of the results of this control occurred in 2004, when I was Chairman of the Board of Freedom House. A group of American Muslims came to our Center for Religious Freedom with educational materials that had been left in their mosques by visiting Saudi Imams (with diplomatic passports), after the Saudis had stripped the mosques of the educational materials produced by the American Muslims. One example of the nature of the Saudi materials was the description in the study plan for 10th graders of the three acceptable methods of killing a homosexual: Throw from a high place, stone, or burn to death. Saudi online schoolbooks still retain this sort of material.

We are a nation composed substantially of religious refugees and their progeny. The First Amendment is first for a reason -- its importance. One of the last things most Americans want to see is religious discrimination. For this reason our enemies find it useful to accuse their critics falsely of “Islamophobia” in order to intimidate them into silence. But the brave Jews, Muslims and Christians who fought against the Spanish Inquisition were not “Christianophobes.” They were struggling against a totalitarian political system with a religious cover story.

So must we. We must focus on the fact that we don’t want to see the acceptance of wife beating and other brutalities creep into our legal system via religious claims. For Muslims and the rest of us, one’s religious observation is one’s own business. But just as the U.S. Supreme Court in the Reynolds case of 1878 decisively held that American Mormons had no right to be polygamists, whatever their religious beliefs, so too with Somali Muslim taxi drivers in Minneapolis who refuse to pick up blind people with seeing-eye dogs because they believe dogs to be unclean. There is a clear American response to this: “you need to find some job other than cab driver.” It is not “Islamophobia” to stand up for our Constitution and our laws. Political movements rooted in religious tolerance are welcome. Totalitarianism, whatever its roots, is not.

Americans would not only accept, they would enthusiastically embrace, a political movement rooted in Islam such as Indonesia’s LibForAll, which grows out of the tolerant and freedom-embracing branch of Islam adhered to by the late President Wahid. In his book, The Illusion of an Islamic State, published just before his death, Wahid does not mince words. In the chapter titled “The Enemy Within” he wrote of the “Wahhabi or Muslim Brotherhood view of Islam” that “Concerning the implicit claim of hardline activists that they completely understand the meaning of holy scripture and are therefore entitled to become God’s vice-regents (caliphs) and rule this world, compelling others to follow their “perfect” understanding – this claim is totally unacceptable and must be rejected, both theologically and politically.”

Today, the oil, the fortunes, and the propagation of a derivative totalitarian ideology are not in Indonesia, but rather in the Arabian desert and, in a somewhat different way, in another region rich in oil: Iran.

Under these circumstances we must keep three things clearly in mind.

First, we must respect religious tolerance and freedom of speech.

Second, we must not let ideologues silence us by imposing political correctness. If we cannot talk and write clearly about the ideology -- the “Wahhabi or Muslim Brotherhood view” -- whose followers labor to destroy our free society, we will have no chance of defeating it. In this context we must avoid defining the problem down to a level that tries to trick people into believing that we are only facing random “violent extremism” or are only in a war against Al Qaeda. That latter characterization is exactly as accurate as saying that what we were doing between 1941 and 1945 in the Pacific was fighting Kamikazes. The only purpose of such a description is to permit an early and wholly fraudulent declaration of victory in what will be a very long war indeed.

Finally, the financial lifeblood of most totalitarianism in these days is oil. We will not win this long war unless and until we turn to other fuels and bankrupt those who use oil to advance their authoritarian and totalitarian goals.

R. James Woolsey is chairman of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a former Director of Central Intelligence.

Distinguishing Signal From Noise
Al-Qaeda used to issue formal press releases. U.S. counterterrorism analysts have been chasing phantoms online ever since it stopped
By Jarret Brachman

I’m an al-Qaeda propaganda junkie. Whether I’m dissecting rising al-Qaeda spiritual leader Abu Yahya’s latest sermon or poring over Ayman al-Zawahiri’s latest screed, press releases from al-Qaeda’s senior leadership get my adrenaline pumping. At least, they used to.

The world of counterterrorism was once deluged with official al-Qaeda media releases. In the group’s propaganda heyday, between 2006 to 2009, you could barely finish watching one must-see al-Qaeda video before a must-read al-Qaeda monograph a hundred pages long hit the online jihadist newsstands. Al-Qaeda was constantly rolling out new personalities, elaborating new talking points and crafting new strategies.

Al-Qaeda’s official media products offered treasure troves of insights about the men behind the curtain. By drawing on their own words, analysts could tease out important clues regarding al-Qaeda’s strategic priorities or their perceived vulnerabilities. If you looked carefully, you might catch a whiff of interpersonal drama or an obscure reference to lingering historical baggage, like the soap opera-styled back-and-forth Ayman al-Zawahiri had with his former best friend, Sayyid Imam Sharif (aka Dr. Fadl). Those kinds of juicy nuggets were gold when formulating information operations strategies.

But those days are long gone. The steady decline in numbers of vocal al-Qaeda leaders, combined with our increased operational pressure on the group, has led to a virtual messaging blackout from its top dogs. This dearth of red meat messaging has prompted many counterterrorism analysts to retreat back to the land where everyone from the truly dangerous to the angry kid with too much time on his hands gathers to spew jihadist invective: the Internet forums.

For those unfamiliar with this shadowy world, al-Qaeda’s online discussion boards are the primary haunts for its global support base, and though they’ve been around for years, their siren song continues to seduce counterterrorism analysts.

The problem with reporting on al-Qaeda forums is that you can find whatever bogeyman you seek. Impress your boss by reporting on the latest maniacal death threat posted to Al-Ansar. Score headlines by describing the scary new strategy posted on Al-Shumukh. If the threat never materializes, who cares? You couldn’t not take it seriously. If you don’t know anything about the poster, who cares? He could have been a legitimate threat.

10 years after 9/11, the counterterrorism community continues chasing these phantoms without ever having questioned the premise of the effort. To date, there has been no authoritative study on what, if any, influence jihadist Internet forums have on the group’s senior leadership or strategy. And I know of only one — yes, one — open-source analyst who has been systematically tracking the anomalous online forum users who actually go operational. There is no uniform set of metrics for ranking the impact or influence of posters on jihadist fora online.

This community-wide failure to develop standards for prioritizing, reporting on and analyzing al-Qaeda forum postings has led our field down a dangerous road, where analytical rigor is compromised and fear of barking squirrels reigns supreme.

To counterterrorism analysts like me, the idea may seem frightening, but our goal is to put ourselves out of a job, not to create new ones.

Jarret Brachman is the managing director of Cronus Global, a security consulting firm. He served as the director of research at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center from 2004 to 2008 and had been a Graduate Fellow at the Central Intelligence Agency before that. Brachman authored Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice and blogs at on Al-Qaeda media and strategy.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: 10 Years After 9/11
After 10 years, the U.S. still has no grand strategy for fighting its terrorist enemies
By Mary Habeck

America has done many things right since September 11th, most especially the disruption of al-Qaeda’s central leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There have been no large scale attacks in the United States since 9/11, and not because al-Qaeda has given up on killing Americans, but rather because our dedicated counter-terrorism work has stopped the plots.

The killing of Osama Bin Laden—an unalloyed victory in the war—is part of this effort, as is the death or capture of hundreds of his lieutenants. The financial side of the war has also gone well, with new regulations and cooperation from the international community preventing millions of dollars from falling into terrorist hands. Diplomatically, the U.S. has lined up able partners for the struggle, all of whom have been invaluable in disrupting plots against us.

So much for the good. Afghanistan, which once looked like the “good war,” has bogged down into an insurgency that will take years of effort to defeat. It is frustrating that the military, through the war in Iraq, has found the right methodology to defeat the neo-Taliban, but the U.S. and NATO have lost the will to continue the fight and might leave on the brink of victory.

Pakistan too has regressed, from a robust partner in the war into a collection of vying power centers that threaten to tear the country apart and leave it prey for al-Qaeda and its allies. Meanwhile, large swaths of the Muslim world, including Yemen, Somalia, parts of North Africa, and Northern Nigeria, are slipping into further disarray and the orbit of al-Qaeda.

The ugly, however, is not in the separate battlefields, but rather at the meta-level: The United States has no grand strategy for this conflict, nor does it have coordinated military and political strategies for taking on the group worldwide. Instead the government has adopted a patchwork of tactics. It is especially troubling that, 10 years after 9/11, there is no agreement about who the enemy is -- the basic starting point for grand strategy -- and an absolute necessity for strategic planning.

There is also no agreement on what objectives al-Qaeda is attempting to achieve: Is it simply to attack the U.S., or is the group planning to take over territory and create a state? How will the U.S. know how to defeat our enemies when our policymakers cannot agree on who they are or what they intend?

The U.S. has also adopted a flawed framework for dealing with al-Qaeda. From the beginning, Washington has predicated its actions on the assumption that al-Qaeda is a terrorist group focused on killing Americans. This led the U.S. to adopt counter-terrorism as the best means of disrupting the group, a concept that has serious problems.

“Terrorism” alone does not explain why al-Qaeda trained thousands of mujahidin during the 1990s and spread them throughout the Muslim world, why it has co-opted insurgent groups around the globe, and what it is doing on a worldwide scale -- particularly in places like Yemen and Somalia.

Only when we acknowledge that there is more to al-Qaeda than terrorism -- that the organization is running something like a global insurgency -- will we be able to ensure our own security for the decade to come.

Mary Habeck is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where she teaches on irregular warfare, jihadism, and strategic thought. She served as Special Advisor for Strategic Planning on the National Security Council staff under George W. Bush.

Turning Smugglers Into Terrorists
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has tried and failed to radicalize Tuareg tribesmen in North Africa, but it’s had more success making itself their only customer
by Rudolph Atallah
While Al-Qaeda’s (AQ) activities in North Africa have often been largely overstated in the West, the network’s presence and activities have grown steadily in the region over the past decade. This is primarily due to the network’s ability to exploit long-standing mistrust between regional governments and marginal communities to escape security forces. The United States has brokered international cooperation to combat the regional AQ affiliate in North Africa, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but progress has come in fits and starts. This pattern of inconsistent counterterrorism success is illustrated by the tenuous position of the Tuareg tribesmen of northern Mali and Niger.
During my three years working as a U.S. Defense Attaché in West Africa, I spent considerable time with Tuareg tribesmen in Mali and Niger. In 2002, extreme Pakistani Islamists attempted to radicalize Tuareg youth in hopes of establishing a base for militancy in the lawless and disputed areas of the Sahara, between Morocco, Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Libya. Although they failed to sell their ideology, AQ’s attempt to co-opt the Tuaregs became part of a long-standing pattern that continues to this day.

Al-Qaeda has consistently tried and failed to radicalize the Tuaregs — highly opportunistic tribesmen who rely on tourism and smuggling to make a living in their harsh desert surroundings. But in early 2003, Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) commander Amari Saifi, also known as “Abdelrizak” or “Al-Para,” kidnapped 32 European tourists, causing much of the Tuaregs’ income to dry up overnight. (The GSPC was the precursor to AQIM.) In 2004, the Movement for Democracy and Justice in Chad captured Saifi and turned him over to the Algerian government. This naturally put the Tuaregs in a bind, bleeding their revenues and leaving them exposed to forces such as the Malian military.

A couple years earlier, in 2002, a well-established smuggler named Moktar Bel Moktar, sometimes referred to as “Mr. Marlboro Man” for his black market cigarette trading activities, established himself in Northern Mali. Bel Moktar married a Tuareg woman from the Kidal region, and closed ranks with the Tuareg tribesmen while simultaneously becoming a key supplier of weapons and material for AQIM in Algeria. Then and now, the Tuaregs who supported him did so to make money. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that the black market cigarette trade in north and west Africa amounts to as much as $700 million a year.

But Tuareg support to Bel Moktar was not without cost to the tribesmen. Tuaregs have long relied on tourism to earn a living, in addition to their trade in salt, cotton, gold and other commodities. Indeed, the Tuareg festival (“Festival au Desert”), held in January each year, draws many Westerners to the Sahara. Still others come to participate in off-road travel through the desert, or seek other adventure. When AQIM got into the business of kidnapping, many young Tuaregs lost the opportunity to make money, as the tourist industry disappeared.

Nonetheless, this strategic financial loss did little to diminish Bel Moktar’s appeal to Toureg youth. In 2002, well before Bel Moktar was on Washington’s radar, I spent many nights in Kidal and Tessalit with Tuaregs to learn about their culture and way of living. All of them held Bel Moktar in high regard because he provided unparalleled access to the smuggling business, respected their culture, and protected them from the Malian military and police. Bel Moktar’s ability to facilitate and capitalize upon the Tuaregs’ free movement through the Sahara to smuggle weapons, drugs, black market cigarettes, alcohol and more, helped AQ more than their radicalization campaign: it played upon the natural patterns of the opportunistic tribesmen, who gladly welcomed the help.

Now, after Bel Moktar’s arrest, the situation has deteriorated further. Without economic opportunities, some young Tuaregs kidnap westerners themselves, selling them to AQIM for money. Though older Tuaregs frown on this behavior, they have a hard time controlling the restive youth.

For a trivial investment of aid, the United States can quietly build bridges with the Tuaregs, and provide them economic alternatives to kidnapping, denying AQIM further inroads. After all, the Tuaregs have no natural affinity for terrorists. Their loyalties can be bought for much less than annual military aid to most U.S. allies, and dependency on the terrorist trade replaced with a reliance on American friends.

Rudolph Atallah is the CEO of White Mount Research, LLC, and a retired U.S. Air Force officer and former Africa Counter-Terrorism Director in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Afghanistan Should Have Been the Focus
In chasing aspirational objectives in Afghanistan and starting a war in Iraq, we went too far
By Robert C. McFarlane

The 9/11 attacks gave evidence of a well-financed, operationally capable organization committed to waging unrestricted war on Americans. It was imperative that our response eliminate those who planned the attack and destroy their capability to carry on. Yet our understandable haste in launching that counterattack on al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts foreclosed thorough analysis of at least two fundamental matters:

First, the enormous complexity, time and resources involved in forging a functional government, let alone an effective security system, in a diverse alien culture. And second, the latent tensions and instability that had been brewing for over a decade in Pakistan, the key ally on whom we would have to rely for logistic and intelligence support.

More deliberate consideration of such factors could have limited our mission to the destruction of al-Qaeda and the formation of a coalition government in Afghanistan (that alone a daunting challenge). It also could have foreclosed consideration of launching a second concurrent war in Iraq, where similar challenges were bound to emerge. Iraq posed no threat to us: The decision to invade it was inspired by quixotic zeal and towering hubris—the belief that we could easily establish there a functioning and prosperous democracy as a model to be adopted throughout the Muslim world.

However ill-conceived politically, the war in Iraq has been executed extremely well militarily. After eight and a half years, we have helped the Iraqis dislodge a tyrant and take the first steps toward a pluralistic, accountable future. In short, much of that original purpose could well be achieved in the years ahead—if we don’t forfeit the potential gains out of fatigue and overreach.

The U.S. has also made gains in its national security institutions, notably in special operations and intelligence. Given the relationship of these capabilities to the threats we will continue to face—plus our nation’s fiscal realities—the impending restructuring of our military is beginning to take shape.

Bud McFarlane served as President Reagan’s national security adviser, and is a senior adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.