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Minimalist imperialists

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Minimalist imperialists

From Afghanistan and Iraq to Al Qaeda, the Bushies’ willingness to declare victory in unfinished wars could come back to haunt the White House — and the country


THERE’S NOTHING really difficult about exploiting America’s short-term memory. The shell game over why the US went to war with Iraq offers a great example. Weapons of mass destruction? Regime change? War crimes? The debate and the ultimate debacle of US diplomacy were swept away by one or two carefully staged moments: the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square on April 9 by US troops, along with images of a smattering of liberated Iraqis, have become ubiquitous symbols of the war’s success. A few weeks later, on May 1, President George W. Bush’s controversial jet landing and twilight speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln smeared a thick layer of politically potent icing atop the US-led conquest of Iraq.

Of course, none of these events marked the true end to the hostilities. Rather, the most reliable sign that the Iraq campaign had concluded was the resumption of business as usual on America’s daily newscasts. Merely yanking down a statue registers less strongly in the American psyche than US broadcasters’ decision to return to the customary journalistic gruel offered the nation’s viewers.

Cue the guy who spent four days trapped under an 800-pound boulder and then hacked his arm off to escape; bring on the lurid details of Laci Peterson’s murder. Let NBC’s Today host Katie Couric and Tonight Show host Jay Leno swap gigs. If such fare is back on the tube, the terrorists can’t be winning. Leave it to the BBC to cover the cholera and typhoid outbreaks that are part of the untidy freedom unleashed in Iraq. We’ve got footage of teenage girls pelting each other with excrement and animal organs!

Alas, the post-Iraq-era complacency was as painfully short as Americans’ memories. Less than two weeks after the White House signaled an end to hostilities in Iraq (accompanied by the parallel declaration by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that the Afghanistan campaign was over), Al Qaeda–linked bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco killed off the victory buzz. A string of additional alerts — focused mainly in Africa — have followed. The newspapers and TV networks have rediscovered the menace of Al Qaeda.

Already, terrorism experts are jousting about what the new spate of attacks means for US homeland security. Some believe that Al Qaeda is morphing into a dangerous new form. Others see it as a crippled and overrated remnant capable only of attacking "soft," lightly defended targets (nightclubs, consulates), posing little threat to the homeland proper.

Whatever the truth about Al Qaeda, its renewed assault has reminded Americans that the Bush White House’s victory lap was a tad premature. Unfinished business remains: former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is still at large. The US occupation of Iraq, with its revolving-door administration (the much-hyped consulship of Retired US General Jay Garner lasted an ignominious few weeks) has decimated that country’s civil order and public-health infrastructure. Then there’s Afghanistan, which remains in chaos, vulnerable to a regrouping Taliban — Al Qaeda’s prime sponsors in the country. And no one knows where to find Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

At Monday’s White House press briefing, the first two substantive questions faced by press secretary Ari Fleischer concerned Al Qaeda. Major US newspapers are tracing the path of what the New York Times dubbed a "revived Al Qaeda." The victory declared on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln has already faded into uncertainty with a few well-placed explosives and suicide attacks.

But will the resurgence of Al Qaeda revive Americans’ concerns about the roots of terrorism — and the Bush administration’s failure to catch its practitioners and eliminate the pools of poverty, ignorance, and rage in which it breeds? It’s certainly a fair question, and one not answered by a Top Gun–style aircraft-carrier landing.

THE REFRAIN is familiar: don’t play politics with homeland security. Addressing the threat posed by Al Qaeda — and the US effort to hunt down its members — should be beyond mere partisan politics. But if the Democratic candidates who want to replace George W. Bush have become more voluble in questioning the White House’s commitment to fighting Al Qaeda, perhaps it was the roar of that stage-managed jet landing which forced them to raise their voices.

Before the recent attacks, for instance, Bush couldn’t stop telling Americans how important it was for the battle on terrorism to take out Saddam Hussein. Both in his May 1 speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln and in a speech given the following day at United Defense Industries in Santa Clara, California, President Bush unequivocally linked the war on Iraq to Al Qaeda. Aboard the Abraham Lincoln, for instance, the president depicted Iraq’s defeat as a blow to Al Qaeda:

From Pakistan to the Philippines to the Horn of Africa, we are hunting down Al Qaeda killers. Nineteen months ago, I pledged that the terrorists would not escape the patient justice of the United States. And as of tonight, nearly one-half of Al Qaeda’s senior operatives have been captured or killed. The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror. We’ve removed an ally of Al Qaeda, and cut off a source of terrorist funding. And this much is certain: no terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime, because the regime is no more.

In the May 2 Santa Clara speech, Bush made the point even more explicitly as he linked together the Afghan and Iraq campaigns:

In the battle of Afghanistan, we destroyed one of the most barbaric regimes in the history of mankind. A regime so barbaric, they would not allow young girls to go to school. A regime so barbaric, they were willing to house Al Qaeda. That regime no longer exists. Many Al Qaeda leaders no longer exist. And the training camps no longer exist. In the war on terror, we’re making good progress. As I said last night, nearly one-half of all Al Qaeda’s senior operatives are no longer a threat to the United States of America. And we’re still on the hunt. We will flush them out of their caves, we’ll get them on the run, and we will bring them to justice. As a result of the bravery and skill of our Armed Forces and coalition forces, the war on terror is much longer down the road because of what happened in Iraq. You see, the Al Qaeda no longer have an ally in the regime in Iraq. Terrorists no longer have a funding source in the regime of Iraq.

Thus, the president has expressly endorsed the Iraq campaign’s importance to the fight against Al Qaeda. And, mere days later, top administration counterterrorism and homeland-security officials matched Bush’s rhetoric in declaring victory in Baghdad with some astonishing public crowing about progress on other fronts in the war on terror. These figures not only bragged about their successes, but also emphasized what they claimed was the greatly weakened state of Al Qaeda. The headline of a May 6 article in the Washington Post put it bluntly: SPY AGENCIES’ OPTIMISM ON AL QAEDA IS GROWING: LACK OF ATTACKS THOUGHT TO SHOW GROUP IS NEARLY CRIPPLED. Post reporters Walter Pincus and Dana Priest studded their piece with the qualifying language of bet hedging ("[A]l Qaeda still appears capable of mounting substantial terrorist operations"), but the overall thrust was clear: Al Qaeda is on the way out.

The Post article notes that Osama bin Laden's April 7 audiotaped call for suicide attacks had not been followed by any Al Qaeda terrorist activity — and that the sustained campaign of arrests and manhunts had "disrupted the network’s ability to communicate and made it much more difficult for it to plan large-scale attacks." But it’s the chest-thumping quotes from State Department counterterrorism chief Cofer Black that set the tone for the article’s analysis. Black told the Post that "it’s no coincidence" that Al Qaeda had not attacked occurred during the US-led war on Iraq. "This was the big game for them — you put up or shut up and they have failed. It proves that the global war on terrorism has been effective, focused, and has got these guys on the run."

US Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge used similar language in a May 9 interview. In a conversation with NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw, Ridge repeatedly argued that Al Qaeda’s capability to act had been "degraded." He added that the terrorist group was "patient and persistent ... on a day-to-day basis there is still a threat," but his main message was clear. A combination of military action and manhunts "have greatly diminished the ability of Al Qaeda, for example, to launch a strike."

Thus, just before the spate of new Al Qaeda bombings, Bush-administration officials were edging very close to talking smack about bin Laden and the rest of his terrorist network. There’s a word to describe that kind of unfortunate and ironic coincidence. It’s called hubris.

SUCH HUBRIS has been noticeably absent among many close observers of Al Qaeda. Only one day before the Washington Post’s May 6 trash talking of Al Qaeda, the Christian Science Monitor came to an entirely different conclusion. Its May 5 edition features a story with the stark headline AL QAEDA MAY BE REBUILDING.

Relying on a broader array of sources than the Post, the Monitor quoted this snippet from an intelligence report prepared by a "European ally" that put the question of Al Qaeda’s potency bluntly: "The toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime could have a cataclysmic effect on the mobilization of recruits for Al Qaeda. Despite the significant successes we’ve had against them, and the pressure we’ve brought to bear, we cannot say that the Al Qaeda network has been weakened, let alone destroyed."

The Monitor also noted that Al Qaeda has adapted to the pressure placed upon it by the law-enforcement and military apparatus of the US and its allies in the war on terror. It's done so by reclaiming territory in Afghanistan right under the noses of US troops, transforming its funding network to resist detection, and "outsourcing" some of its work to regional Islamic terror networks.

This view of Al Qaeda’s continuing potency is shared by one of America’s foremost experts on Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network. Journalist Peter Bergen — author of Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden (Free Press, 2001), the most comprehensive look at Al Qaeda’s rise to prominence — has updated his account of the group’s post-9/11 activities in a recent documentary, Al Qaeda 2.0, for the new Discovery Times cable channel.

Al Qaeda 2.0 tracks the many successes achieved by the US and its allies in battling bin Laden’s terror network. But it also provides a chilling account of how the organization has quietly melted away to regroup. Bergen’s documentary examines how Al Qaeda’s infamous October 12, 2002, Bali nightclub attack (a template for attacks such as Friday’s Casablanca bombing) was concocted, and it also takes viewers from Pakistan’s Karachi (a well-known hiding place for the group) to lesser-known breeding grounds. In particular, Al Qaeda 2.0 singles out Bangladesh for its poverty, Islamic fervor, and opacity to Western intelligence and law enforcement as precisely the sort of place where bin Laden’s network can safely regroup and regenerate.

Reached by phone, Bergen observes that "the obituary [for Al Qaeda] was written prematurely. The obituary writers will have to do some rethinking." He does downplay the immediate threat of another attack by Al Qaeda on US soil in the near term, but he notes that the group’s capacity to attack US citizens and interests has not diminished. "I think we might see numerous attacks overseas," says Bergen. "Mainly against economic and soft targets. The group remains a significant threat to Western interests around the world."

The question, he says, is how the Bush administration and future American leaders will regard such an Al Qaeda campaign. "Does [a campaign of overseas attacks] represent a national-security threat?" asks Bergen. "Or is it merely an irritant? The cost of doing business?" He sees the US business community — and particularly US business interests abroad — as a potential soft underbelly that may push smaller attacks abroad into something more damaging to US interests. "There could be significant fallout if American corporations begin to say that it’s too risky to do business abroad," Bergen says. "If [such attacks] keep happening, it could push things into the category of a threat to national security."

Bergen argues that a key to Al Qaeda’s flexibility in the post-9/11 environment is its transformation from a concrete organization with a central command and training camps to a more "virtual" entity connected by ideology and hatred. In short, it has shifted from the "incorporated" body that he described in Holy War, Inc. to the "software" so chillingly detailed in Al Qaeda 2.0 — ready to be inserted and downloaded in many locations. The organization’s new "virtual" model also means that the capture of key leaders and operatives such as Khalid Sheikh Muhammed (Al Qaeda’s operations director, who was detained in March) and the continuing fugitive status of bin Laden impair Al Qaeda’s operations, but do not destroy them.

Bergen believes that an attack on the scale of the May 12 Saudi Arabian residence-compound bombings bears the mark of a "green light" from bin Laden himself, but that lower-level attacks by the "virtual" Al Qaeda require nothing more to proceed than the means and will to carry them out. "The people who carry out such attacks," he says, "don’t have to be part of the organization proper. It’s become an ideology. It may look like Al Qaeda the organization perpetrated an attack, but it doesn’t have to have approval. Someone like Khalid Sheikh Muhammed may have had three or four more attacks up his sleeve. But you can imagine what a more-virtual Al Qaeda could be capable of doing."

IF NOTHING ELSE, the attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco have put Al Qaeda firmly back on the radar screen. Notwithstanding the boasts made by US State Department counterterrorism chief Cofer Black that Al Qaeda had failed to respond to the Iraq war, the terrorists’ response now seems quite apparent.

The greatest immediate danger in Al Qaeda’s latest response is that it is quintessentially "terrorist." That is, these attacks are designed to instill fear as much as they are designed to do concrete damage. The strained relations between the US and the Saudi Arabian regime may be "strengthened" by the attack, but such cooperation has the downside of playing into Al Qaeda’s hands by sharpening Saudis’ anti-American feelings. And as surely as the October blast in Bali crushed tourism in that popular destination, Westerners’ desire to travel to Morocco in the aftermath of Friday’s blast will suffer.

Even in the aftermath of the new bombings, however, some continue to argue that Al Qaeda is overrated. In Monday’s Times of London, op-ed columnist Mick Hume accused Americans of "paranoia" about Al Qaeda. "All it takes," Hume wrote, "is a few zealots with homemade bombs in Africa or Asia to have the Western world pressing the panic button."

It is hard to argue with one aspect of Hume’s critique. The news media that rushed back to trash as soon as the White House said the war was over can switch back just as easily to hyping the terrorist threat. "Today the reported sighting of a man with a beard," wrote Hume, "can cause us to cancel flights to East Africa; a few envelopes of white powder can close down the machinery of US government; two snipers with one rifle can bring Washington, DC, to a standstill; and a limited health problem such as SARS can send entire cities and economies into quarantine."

Perhaps what is even more scary than the blasts directed against tourists and Americans far from home is that America’s battle against Al Qaeda represents yet another unfinished bit of White House foreign policy. And a highly politicized one at that. The Bush administration has a long to-do list that stretches from catching bin Laden, crushing the Taliban, and finding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to repairing the frayed US relations with Europe.

Most alarming for the future, however, is the Bush administration’s willingness to declare victory in unfinished wars — and to use them as a means to reap political capital. That sort of hubris could come back to haunt the White House as surely as bin Laden’s violent ideologues have come back to haunt the soft tourist targets of Casablanca and the brittle regime in Riyadh.

Richard Byrne can be reached at [email protected]

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