By William Pfaff
Given that the Western world, and above all the United States and the Middle East, has been obsessed with al-Qaida since 2001, and given the tides of words that have been written about this organization, systematic knowledge about it and its members remains limited, at least in public discourse, neglected if not ignored in much public, political and press discussion of the matter in the U.S. and abroad.
Consider the testimony of Dr. Marc Sageman before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. On Oct. 7, he presented before the committee a long and meticulous examination of the nature and limits of the al-Qaida organization today, and of the groups associated with it, the people who belong to it, the nature and limits of its present situation, the real (and limited) success of its terrorist actions and projects during the years since its founding in 1988—especially during the eight years since the 9/11 bombings—and, finally, its strength and operational potential today.
So far as concerns America’s Asian wars today and tomorrow, this testimony provided vitally important information, yet was hardly anywhere reported or noted, even at exactly the moment when President Barack Obama was laboring over a decision as to whether the “AfPak war” should be enlarged and perpetuated, undoubtedly until the election of his successor.
If the president and Congress were to follow the implied message of the Sageman presentation, the probability of Mr. Obama’s serving two terms, rather than one, in the White House would greatly rise.
Marc Sageman is a forensic and clinical psychiatrist who has served as a naval flight surgeon, then as a CIA officer who between 1987 and 1989 was in Islamabad directing the U.S. unilateral programs with the Afghan mujahedeen.
He left the CIA in 1991 to return to medicine, and has since also occupied academic positions at the Universities of Pennsylvania and Maryland, and been a fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
His Senate testimony presented findings from a comprehensive survey, published by the FPRI, conducted during Sageman’s one-year associations with both the U.S. Secret Service and the New York City Police Department, and consultation with foreign intelligence and security organizations, to collect data on all al-Qaida terrorist plots and actions since that organization’s creation in August 1988, together with those of its affiliated groups, and all those conducted “in its name” by its emulators and admirers.
His testimony is much too long, systematically organized and synthesized, and meticulously documented, to be summarized here. It can and should be consulted at the Foreign Policy Research Institute Web site (www.fpri.org).
A few of its most important points follow.
There have been 60 global neo-jihadi (the author’s preferred term) projects or “plots” in the West in the last two decades, by 46 terrorist networks or groups connected directly or indirectly with al-Qaida. The first was the original attack on the New York World Trade Center in 1993, and the most recent was a plot to blow up the headquarters of the French General Directorate of Internal Security, the author of which was arrested in December 2008. Of the 60 plots, only one is completely unsolved.
Al-Qaida itself was directly linked to 20 percent of these episodes. Most—78 percent—were the work of “autonomous homegrown groups” with no real connection to al-Qaida, but its admirers, usually inspired by the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Of the 60 “neo-jihadi” plots in the West, nine were actually Algerian terrorist attacks on Paris in the 1990s (for its support of the military government in Algeria), three were al-Qaida’s successes (9/11, the London bombings, and indirectly Madrid), 36 were disrupted by police arrests, and 10 failed because of mechanical or organizational failures by the terrorists.
The al-Qaida core organization became active in the West in 1993 (the first Trade Center attack), peaked in 2001 with the 9/11 bombings, and since has been in decline. Only two other al-Qaida-linked attacks were successful (the London transport bombings and the Madrid train-station bombing—which had no active link to al-Qaida, but was copying it.). Some 3,000 Americans were killed on 9/11, 52 people in London, and 191 died in Madrid.
There has since been no “resurgent al-Qaida” in the West. The overall pattern of international terrorism since 2001 is increasingly that of a “leaderless jihad,” resembling the spontaneous series of terrorist actions and murders of heads of state in Europe and America (including U.S. President William McKinley in 1901), carried out by autonomous utopian anarchists at the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries.
Al-Qaida’s relations with the Taliban today are troubled. According to Sageman, any “Taliban return to power [in Afghanistan] will not mean an automatic new sanctuary for al-Qaida.” He concludes that “effective counter-terrorism strategy [is] on the brink of completely eliminating al-Qaida.” There will be no organization to return. This is the result of effective international and domestic intelligence cooperation as well as good police work. So why, one asks, is the U.S. expanding its war in Afghanistan?
Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.