After terrorist extraordinaire Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) acknowledged involvement in over 30 plots going back to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing at his Guantanamo Bay hearing (pdf), some pundits complained he was bragging. Yet although KSM may have padded his resume, U.S. authorities have long recognized his centrality. Already in December 2002, several months before his capture, the Congressional Joint Inquiry reported, "Since September 11, the CIA has come to believe that KSM may have been responsible for all bin Ladin operations outside Afghanistan."
KSM also explained that not all his terrorism was for al Qaeda; there were "operations," before he joined the organization. That, indeed, is the official U.S. position: neither the Trade Center bombing, nor a 1995 plot to bomb a dozen U.S. airliners, in which KSM was also involved, was the work of al Qaeda.
Is There More to This Than Islamic Militants?
When KSM was based in the Philippines, preparing the plot against U.S. airliners, he and his co-conspirators had girlfriends and otherwise enjoyed Manila's decidedly un-Islamic nightlife. At his hearing, KSM stated in broken English, "I consider myself, for what you are doing, a religious thing, as you consider us fundamentalists," but then proceeded to talk about George Washington, World Wars I and II, and other conflicts in U.S. history. Perhaps, KSM sought to relate to his American audience, but what other major Islamic figure has sought to explain himself without one reference to tyrants and wars in Islamic history?
A hearing was also held for a high-value detainee known as Abu Faraj al-Libi, captured in Pakistan in May 2005. The transcript (pdf) states: "In September 2004 several members of al Qaeda involved in terrorist operations, including the detainee, met in Syria to discuss a variety of terrorist operations, including planned operations in the United States, Europe and Australia." What were al Qaeda members doing in Syria? Was Syrian intelligence involved with them? What attacks did they plan? Did any materialize? Walid Jumblatt, a key figure in Lebanon's political reform movement, recently met with President George Bush and warned him about Syrian support for al Qaeda's growing presence in Lebanon.
Fighting the Last War
After Sudan expelled Osama bin Ladin to Afghanistan in 1996, a CIA officer went there to meet with Ahmed Shah Massoud. Head of the Northern Alliance, Massoud led the fight against the Taliban and was assassinated on the eve of the 9/11 attacks. As Steve Coll, former managing editor of the Washington Post, relates in Ghost Wars, Massoud cautioned the American against focusing too much on al Qaeda. It was just one element in a "poisonous coalition," Massoud explained, that included "Pakistani and Arab intelligence agencies; impoverished young students bused to their deaths as volunteer fighters from Pakistani religious schools; exiled Central Asian Islamic radicals; ... and wealthy sheikhs and preachers who jetted in from the Persian Gulf." (Emphasis added.)
Typically, Americans call all that complexity "al Qaeda" -- now essentially a "brand-name," as one former Congressman, himself an out-of-the-box thinker, puts it. In this category that we call "al Qaeda," we see figures like bin Ladin, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the blind Egyptian cleric, Shaykh Omar Abdul Rahman, convicted of New York's "Landmarks" plot. We then go through an intellectual process that renders this novel foe familiar. We build a high-wall around the Islamic radicals, seeing them as an entity unto themselves. We then elevate their backward fanaticism into an "ideology," the successor threat to Nazi Germany and Soviet Communism. And, finally, we are fighting World War III against "Islamism" or "Islamofascism."
This enemy appeals, because we recognize it from our past, but does it accurately depict the current challenge? Communism and fascism were the official ideologies of major European powers. What power, indeed what state, is the United States fighting now? "There is no there, there," one thoughtful conservative publisher complains In fact, this understanding is rooted in Bill Clinton's law enforcement approach to terrorism, in which his administration could not recognize the involvement of states in major terrorist attacks. This is actually Clintonism, massaged and re-formulated, to appeal to the most patriotic Americans.
It is not only generals who can err by fighting the last war. We have been fighting the GWOT for over five years, but have yet to win one major conflict, even as radicalism's appeal to young Muslims remains undiminished. A senior Iraqi politician recently advised this author that there is no lack of suicide bombers there -- they are stacked up and ready to go.
Perhaps, our approach is fundamentally wrong, because the conventional wisdom about the nature of the enemy is wrong? Victory in the Cold War required establishing a "B" team to reassess the conventional wisdom about the Soviet Union. That reassessment produced a correct understanding of the enemy and helped Ronald Reagan develop a strategy for victory. We very much need to undertake a similar exercise regarding our foe in the GWOT. Meanwhile, perhaps we can give a little more thought to just what we mean, when we speak about "al Qaeda"?
Laurie Mylroie (lauriemylroie.com) is an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Study of Revenge: The First World Trade Center Attack and Saddam Hussein's War Against America (AEI Press, 2001).
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