Permissible Arms

And then I get to dress like a spy.

Posted in afghanistan, terrorism by Karaka on 28 September 2009

I have kind of been ignoring the long war recently; amid the terrorist plots foiled and potential bombers arrested in the US, I’ve just been idly keeping tabs rather than get embroiled in the drama of it all. But the NYT has an article on Rethinking Our Terrorist Fears that caught my attention.

But important as they were, those news reports masked a surprising and perhaps heartening long-term trend: Many students of terrorism believe that in important ways, Al Qaeda and its ideology of global jihad are in a pronounced decline — with its central leadership thrown off balance as operatives are increasingly picked off by missiles and manhunts and, more important, with its tactics discredited in public opinion across the Muslim world.

“Al Qaeda is losing its moral argument about the killing of innocent civilians,” said Emile A. Nakhleh, who headed the Central Intelligence Agency’s strategic analysis program on political Islam until 2006. “They’re finding it harder to recruit. They’re finding it harder to raise money.”

It’s heartening to hear that there is some effectiveness in the strategies that existed…

Even counterterrorism officials who agree that Al Qaeda is on the wane, for example, say the organization might well regroup if left unmolested in a lawless region in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Somalia. Moreover, they point out that even a lone terrorist with modest skills can produce mass carnage. Six years before 9/11, with no aid from a sophisticated network, Timothy McVeigh used a simple fertilizer bomb in Oklahoma City to kill 168 people. And the 2001 calamity was the work of, at most, a few dozen plotters.

…but that doesn’t mean it’s over. I believe the words are, “it ain’t over until it’s over.” Or so I’ve heard.

Peter Mandaville, a professor of government and Islamic studies at George Mason University, says a series of public recantations” by prominent Islamist scholars and militants in recent years have had an effect. But the biggest catalyst has been bombings close to home. “Right after 9/11, people thought, wow, America is not invincible,” Mr. Mandaville said. “It was a strike against the U.S., and they were for it.” But when large numbers of innocent Muslims fell victim to attacks, “it became more and more difficult to romanticize Al Qaeda as fighting the global hegemons — basically, ‘sticking it to the man.’ ”

Rebels aren’t that awesome if they’re killing their own people, too. Then we just call it civil war.

Even those who are convinced Al Qaeda is growing weaker offer a cautious prognosis about what that might mean. They say that what is growing less likely is an attack on American soil with a toll equal to or greater than that of 9/11. But they concede that the example of Al Qaeda will continue to produce copycats: “Bin Laden has given others a narrative, a grand story of struggle, and he’s given them tactics as well,” Dr. Mandaville said … “Terrorism,” he added, “is here to stay.”

This long war ain’t over yet, that should be clear. And the US will be doing itself a disservice if we use this small progress as a benchmark for withdrawal.

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