Gunaratna’s book also gave interesting insight into the way al Qaeda funds itself, which further illuminates the connections (or lack thereof) between al Qaeda and Saudi Arabia. In the months since 9-11, the US, in cooperation with many other countries, has worked hard to cut off funding to al Qaeda, and has designated numerous Islamic charities as terrorist funders and either closed them down or had their assets frozen.
I, and perhaps most Americans, when we heard or terrorism being funded through Islamic charities, imagined these charities as simple front organizations, whose purpose wasn’t actually charity, but to serve as camouflage for donations to al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. The assumption I had was that there was a lot of the old wink-wink, nudge-nudge, sure it’s going to charity type thing going on, while everyone involved knew that the money was really going to help support al Qaeda. In this reading, the money trail leading back to the Saudis was very damning, and support from Saudi based charities meant support from the Saudis and even their government.
But this is too simplistic an interpretation. The first thing to recognize is that almsgiving is one of the five pillars of Islam, a fundamental duty imposed on all Muslims. (The pillars are accepting Allah and his prophet Mohammed, daily prayer, making the Hajj, fasting during Ramadan, and almsgiving or charity.) As charitable giving is a central duty for Muslims, this has naturally resulted in the formation of numerous Islamic charities. And given the wealth in the Middle East and the sheer number of Muslims around the world, this means that there’s a lot of money sloshing around in Islamic charities as a matter of course.
Al Qaeda has systematically pursued a strategy of infiltrating charities, both local branches and central offices. Al Qaeda operatives or sympathizers join the organization and then use their positions to help skim money off to support al Qaeda. While some charitiable groups were formed simply as fronts for al Qaeda, in many more instances the charity was legitimate but was corrupted by al Qaeda, often without the knowledge of either those in charge of the charity or those giving money to it.
And since Saudi Arabia is among the wealthiest of Muslim countries as well as being a very devout country, it’s only natural that there’s a lot of money going from Saudi Arabia into Islamic charities, and from there much of it found it’s way to al Qaeda. But this money trail does not thereby imply that the Saudis are knowingly supporting al Qaeda, although in some cases that may be the case.
It strikes me that this corruption of Islamic charities by al Qaeda would, in the right hands, be a powerful propaganda tool to use against them. With many Muslims around the world poor and needy, and many others giving money to assist them in good faith, al Qaeda has come in and stolen bread from the mouths of hungry Muslims for themselves, to support their troops and fund terrorist assaults. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the US is interested in achieving any propoganda victories, so al Qaeda gets away with this anti-Islamic outrage scot-free, in fact having their cake and eating it too by both skimming off charitable donations and also distributing the remaining charitable funds and appearing as the benefactor of local Muslims when in fact they are stealing from them.
Beyond the charities, al Qaeda has gotten involved in a dizzying number of legitimate and criminal businesses all around the world, with proceeds from them being used to support terrorist cells and attacks. Construction firms in the Sudan, diamond smuggling from sub-Saharan Africa, credit card fraud and counterfeit money in Western Europe, banking, you name it and al Qaeda has probably tried it.
And while major attacks are both planned and funded by the central organization, the average al Qaeda member gets little in the way of pay, with regional cells expected to be self-supporting by whatever means they can. (Which often involves fraud or other criminal activity, but doesn’t necessarily.) So while cutting off funds can hurt al Qaeda’s ability to co-opt existing organizations and plan and carry out large attacks, it does not in and of itself degrade its local capabilities around the world.
Edit on 3/25/03: Mistake above in counting the pillars of Islam corrected from 4 to 5. Caught by alert reader Paul Dunne.
One virtue of Gunaratna’s book is the broad coverage which he gives of al Qaeda’s actions all over the world—he doesn’t just focus on the local threat to the US and Western Europe, but spends a lot of time detailing their actions in Africa and Asia as well. And a pattern for the spread of al Qaeda was repeated over and over again. In almost every instance (with the exception of the early merger between al Qaeda and some Egyptian terrorist groups which was on a relatively equal footing), al Qaeda came in as an outsider, but like Walmart competing with local neighborhood stores was able to use their money and international assets (especially their training camps) to co-opt member of local terrorist organizations and eventually seize control of them, to a greater or lesser extent.
Gunaratna compares al Qaeda to an international holding company, with dozens of small, local terrorist organizations under its umbrellas. The actual size and memebership of al Qaeda itself is not that large, but the total number of assets it influences or controls is much greater, and it is able to utilize the assets of local terrorist organizations (such as safe houses in the Phillipines, for example) to help in the planning and execution of its plots.
In reading this history, it struck me how vitally important it was to destroy the training camps in Afhganistan. I knew they were important, but before reading the book, I didn’t know just how big of an asset they were for al Qaeda. They were the central training point for terrorists from all over the world, who would come there to train. It was the Harvard or MIT of terrorism. And when they came there, the terrorists would be taught not just methods, but also ideology, which helped to spread al Qaeda’s message and radicalize local organizations.
Further, since all these terrorists were coming through al Qaeda camps, al Qaeda was able to have their pick of them for recruiting, choosing only the best of them to become actual members. But they and their compatriots would return to their host countries having imbibed the extremist message of al Qaeda (and terrorists, already pretty extreme, have no little intellectual defense against further radicalization.) This alone would make the group more sympathetic to al Qaeda, who would further buy sympathy and influence with money, as they have access to millions while local operations are usually pretty shoestring.
This approach in most cases relatively rapidly co-opted local terrorist groups such as MILF from local operations with narrow, parochial aims, to effective arms of al Qaeda with its globalist aspirations.
Now, however, this source of metastasizing has largely been eliminated. At least in the short term, al Qaeda’s finances have been disrupted and some of htem have been seized, while the large training camps in Afghanistan have been shut down. Together, these two facts mean that local terrorist cells and organizations have to a large degree been thrown back onto their own resources. It doesn’t eliminate the threat, but interrupting the easy international flow of men and money is a significant blow to the current and more importantly the future effectiveness of al Qaeda. It doesn’t eliminate its spread, but it greatly slows it down, as well as making it possible for alternative terrorist organization to compete with al Qaeda at the local level, which is a good thing (for the US, anyway.)
Inside al Qaeda: an important detail about the Mohammed arrest
One additional note that I hadn’t seen emphasized in the coverage of Mohammed’s arrest. That is that Mohammed had narrowly avoided capture several times in the 3 or 4 weeks before he was actually apprehended. What strikes me about this is that, even though he thus knew that the authorities were right on his trail and that he was in grave danger, he didn’t really go very far. He stayed in Pakistan, even when the heat was on.
This could mean a number of things. First, that he was in the middle of some important plans and couldn’t spare the weeks of disruption fleeing the country and re-establishing himself somewhere else would cause. That’s the scary option.
The more optimistic one is that he didn’t have anywhere else to go. One of the problems in fighting al Qaeda in the past has been it’s ability to change it’;s base of operations. It started in Afghanistan, moved to Pakistan, then when it got too dangerous there they went to the Sudan. When they overstayed their welcome there and it became dangerous to stay there, they returned to Afghanistan. Then after the US attack, what? From reports, they retreated to Northern Pakistan and reorganized there.
But with Musharraf on the side of the US, and US military and intelligence forces in the area in addition to Pakistan ones, this area is no longer safe for al Qaeda, as the arrest shows. But Mohammed didn’t flee to Somalia or Yemen, or some other trouble spot. Which could mean that safe harbors no longer exist for al Qaeda, and the law enforcement noose may be tightening around them, smoking them out of their hiding places.
Inside al Qaeda: The arrest and its likely effects
I just finished reading the book Inside al Qaeda by Rohan Gunaratna, which is a fairly detailed book about the history of al Qaeda and its various efforts around the world. Although the book was very short on analysis, reading it stimulated quite a few ideas about al Qaeda and the war on terror, which I’ll be developing here over the next week or so. It doesn’t really break down into neat and clean topics, so I'll be rambling a bit, but hopefully it will be of some interest.
One of the main organization features of al Qaeda, which everyone knows, is its organization into cells. Each cell is isolated, so breaking up one plot and making arrests does not compromise other cells. However, while this is true at the lower levels, it's not true at higher levels. Al Qaeda is a fairly horizontal organization, so while each cell is isolated, the “oversee-ers,” the handlers of the cells are relatively few in number. It’s this class of managers which connects the far-flung cells of al Qaeda into a real organization.
And reading the history of the various plots, it's remarkable how the same names kept showing up again and again. Almost every major attack of the past 5 years had Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's fingerprints on it, while Mohammed Atef was also involved in many plans.
What this means is that, if you can get up the ladder in al Qaeda and start killing or, even better, arresting top operatives, then the dispersed, horizontal nature of the organization which was a strength when attacking it from the bottom up, becomes a weakness when attacking it from the top down. The top operatives probably have detailed information about many (most?) of the ongoing plots of the group, certainly any major ones, as well as contact information for large numbers of cells. It's still an open question how much useful information they will get from Mohammed and the various assets which were seized, but the potential for damaging al Qaeda is enormous.
There are two secondary questions about the impact of the arrest. The first is what it will do in the short term to any attacks which are in the planning stage. On the Jim Lehrer News Hour last night, the experts they interviews were unwilling to take a stand on whether it would trigger attacks, which agenst will try to get off before they are compromised, or whether terrorists that believed they might be compromised would go into hiding.
Since I’m not an expert and am therefore more free to take a clear stand without a blow to my credibility, my reading of the groups history makes me think that almost all planned attacks will be aborted. Over the past 7 or 8 years, Gunaratna reports on several dozen planned attacks, of which only a few came off. And in almost every case where an agent involved in or privy to information about the plots was arrested, the subsequent attacks were called off. Both when the arrests occurred months before the planned attacks, and when they occurred only a few weeks before. If that pattern holds, unless there were any terrorist strikes planned in the next week or two, other plots will likely be aborted and the terrorist plotters will go into hiding and wait another day.
The second secondary question is whether al Qaeda will be able to replace Mohammed. The key here is how deep the “bench” of al Qaeda is. Before the attack on Afghanistan, it was very deep, with several layers of trusted lieutenants surrounding bin Laden (Mohammed was a layer or two down, despite his expertise and role in many of their major attacks.) Furthermore, al Qaeda had contingency plans, with secondary figures trained to step in and assume the role of any leaders who were killed or captures. Together, these made al Qaeda very resiliant and have allowed it to keep operating even with many leaders killed or on the run. But, given the pressure the organization has been under, it's hard to know whether they have been able to maintain the same level of strategic reserves in personnel, or whether continued attrition at the top might start taking a toll on the overall organizations operation effectiveness.
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