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A blog on terrorism, democracy and international politics

Monday, December 05, 2005

Positives Outweigh Negatives in Tit-for-tat Terror War 

There's an old saying that no news is good news.

By the same token, good news often isn't reported as news.

Since my article Al-Qaeda in Australia was published by Terrorism Monitor, a number of important events related to the war on terrorism have taken place in Australia and around the world. As is to be expected, some of these events are good news and some bad news, but I believe the balance has been positive.

I have been kept busy with work commitments and writing an article on the Australian Anti-Terror Raids, so I have not been able to blog on these events as they happened.

In this blog post, I want to briefly comment on some of the events and changes that have taken place since my last post. (I will leave out the riots in France, which are somewhat peripheral to the theme I have in mind for the post).

Australia - Terror Raids
Indonesia and Jemaah Islamiyyah
Jordan - Hotel Bombings
Egypt - Increasing Openness harms recruiting
Israel - New Party Formed
America and Iraq - Torture and Exit Strategy debates
Death of al-Qaeda's #3


In Al-Qaeda in Australia, I argued that al-Qaeda and allied groups had a serious intention to launch attacks on Australian soil, and that they had attempted to convert this intention into capability by recruiting and training 'cleanskin' Australians and converts, long before the London attacks brought this threat to the forefront of world attention. Although Australians have a tendency to disproportionately fear 'foreign' attacks from the Asia-Pacific region, this could potentially blind us to the importance of internal, Australian threat sources as well as threats beyond our region. Indeed, what was more concerning was the interaction of forces within Australia, the region and further afield.

Internally, I identified alienated individuals who 'self-recruit' to radicalism, and radical clerics (such as Melbourne's Sheikh Omran) who may help to lead such individuals to radicalism.

Externally, I identified the Laskar-i-Taiba terrorist network alongside Jemaah Islamiyyah and Al-Qaeda's core leadership, as groups that could provide needed training, logistical support and motivation to a potential attack within Australia.

Shortly after my article was published, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) published the unclassified version of its 2004/05 Annual Report, which similarly (though briefly) warned of the threat from home-grown terrorists.

In the second week of October, dozens of raids were launched by ASIO, Australian Federal Police and State police in Victoria and New South Wales, resulting in a total of 18 arrests, and police claimed the raids thwarted a mammoth terrorist attack in the late stage of planning. Terrorism Monitor recently published my follow-up article about these arrests, Australian Anti-Terror Raids, as its feature article.

The alleged leader of those arrested, Abdul Nacer Benbrika, became increasingly radical under the tutelage of Sheikh Omran, and eventually broke away from his Brunswick Mosque. The majority of those arrested seem to have become radicalised within Australia. However, the Sydney group's plans seem to have been far more advanced - and many of those arrested in Sydney have previously been linked to members of Laskar-e-Taiba, some allegedly training with the (now banned) al-Qaeda-allied Pakistani militant group. In my article, I argue that differences in the nature of the Sydney and Melbourne groups explain why the Sydney group came so much closer to achieving its alleged objectives.

While any confirmation that there are Australian citizens who would contemplate attacks against their compatriots is bad news, the ability of four different security forces to work so effectively together is good news indeed. ASIO, AFP and the Victorian and NSW police apparently tracked these individuals for 16 months, recording 250 hours of conversations. Thanks in great part to their efforts, no terrorist attack has yet taken place on Australian soil.

Indonesia - Jemaah Islamiyyah

It appears that Jemaah Islamiyyah is now deeply divided about the best method for bringing about political change. Those within the organisation who supported an al-Qaeda-style terror war against foreign interests and were willing to countenance the deaths of hundreds of Indonesian bystanders have been deprived of their foreign backers since the invasion of Afghanistan. Links between al-Qaeda and JI have been severed (eg by Hambali's arrest) and the Indonesian authorities are now taking the terror threat much more seriously than they did in the past. This is one way that takfiri terrorism weakens itself. The terrorists' disregard for the lives of mainstream Muslims (whom they regard as impious or even apostate) means that instead of 'converting' their coreligionists, they alienate them.

The day after the arrests in Australia, one of the last remaining JI hardliners, Malaysian explosives expert Azahari Husin, was killed in a gun battle in central Java, along with several of his acolytes. Police seized 30 small bombs from the hideout. Another JI hardliner, Noordin Muhammad Top, narrowly escaped arrest and his ability to launch attacks in Indonesia is now extremely constrained - as compared to the position in 2001, when the war on terror began.

This does not mean that further terrorist attacks in Indonesia are impossible - but that future attacks will be lesser in magnitude and number than they would otherwise have been. The mainstream in Indonesia - and even within JI itself - has turned decisively against terrorism as a method.


For two years Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi has openly stated that he intends to use Iraq as a base for expansion of 'jihad' throughout the region, particularly to his native Jordan, so the suicide bomb attacks against three Amman hotels in November did not come as a surprise. What did shock many Jordanians was the indiscriminate wounding and death of so many ordinary Jordanian civilians. In particular, the bombing of a wedding by a husband-and-wife team (the wife failed to detonate her explosives) appalled most Jordanians.

Although al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by Zarqawi, initially boasted that "a group of our best lions launched a new attack [on] hotels [that] the Jordanian despot turned into a backyard for the enemies of the faith", it was later forced into the unprecedented step of defending the operation in a specially issued public statement.

Increasingly in the Middle East, the elites and the general public alike are seeing Islamic terrorists in Iraq less as avatars of their own resentment of America and more as a serious threat to their own existence. The governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have recently begun to look for ways they can help in the reconstruction of Iraq.


This is not the only way that Egypt is changing. Although the country remains an authoritarian dictatorship, and its cosmetic steps towards democracy have been a disappointment, President Hosni Mubarak is completing a process begun by Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s, whereby Islamists are neutralised through co-option.

The birthplace of Hassan al-Banna's Muslim Brotherhood, and of the radical MB ideologue Sayyid Qutb, Egpyt was the most important source of Salafi terrorism for most of the last century. Many of the leading figures in al-Qaeda, right up to second-in-command Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, came from Egypt.

However, this seems to be changing. Demographic analysis of the origins of slain fighters whose details have been posted on foreign Islamist Internet forums has shown that while 53% of those whose nationality was mentioned came from Saudi Arabia, only 1% came from Egypt. While sample bias is possible (for example because different networks of Islamists might use different Internet forums), there are strong historic links between the Salafist movement in Egpyt and Saudi Arabia that should mitigate against such biases. (See my July article on the Egyptian origins of Saudi Salafism).

In recent years, the Egyptian terrorist groups that have remained in Egypt (such as Gamaah Islamiyyah) have renounced violence. Muslim Brotherhood members now see a brighter future in Egypt's limited openness (such as through representatives in Parliament) than in blowing themselves up. This is an example that can be followed in other parts of the Middle East.


Developments in Israel over the past week are also broadly relevant to the war on terror and political progress in the region.

Despite predictions that the invasion of Iraq would destabilise the Middle East, and Hamas' threats that the assassination of Muhammad Yassin and Abd al-Aziz Rantissi would lead to a 'volcano of revenge', the situation in Israel and Palestine is now more hopeful than it has in many years - perhaps since 1948.

Four years ago, Israel faced daily suicide attacks as the 'second intifada' raged across Palestine. Although Israel has borne relentless criticism for the methods it employed in response to this onslaught - such as its security barrier - it has survived and the intifada has comprehensively failed. Today, terrorist attacks are far less common in Israel.

Over the past two weeks, an historic shift that has taken place in Israeli politics. Ariel Sharon quit Likud - a party he originally co-founded - to form the new centrist party, Kadimat (Service). Subsequently, the Labour leader Shimon Peres resigned from his party and declared that he will support Sharon.

It is true that the new relationship between Israel and their Palestinian Arab neighbours that Kadimat represents would probably not have been possible without the progress made by Palestinian Authority leader Abu Mazen since the death of Yasser Arafat. However, Abu Mazen has been far from a dove himself in the past. His track record suggests that had the intifada not been defeated, and had an American-led Coalition not made clear its support for democracy in the region, he may have taken a very different approach to the administration of the Palestinian Authority.

Iraq and America

For the past couple of months, America has engaged in a bizarre and unedifying debate over whether or not it should allow the CIA to torture terror suspects. This debate has been triggered by Senator John McCain, who was himself tortured during the Vietnam War, and has recently introduced a Bill to explicitly ban torture by American personnel.

This debate has run in parallel with a debate about America's "exit strategy" in Iraq, in the face of polling showing a majority critical of both the decision to go to war and the handling of the aftermath. If we are to believe the media, the consensus in America is that all US troops must be withdrawn from Iraq, and the only question is how soon this can be accomplished.

This analysis ignores two important statistics. First, the majority of Americans polled did not support the immediate withdrawal of US troops. Second, the majority of Iraqis polled continue to say their lives are improving.

The debate between proponents of various plans for staged or immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq is also strange when one of the key criticisms of the US handling of the war is the failure to provide enough troops to stabilise the country. Now the argument is that Iraq would be more stable with less troops? It is telling that Senator McCain, so often cited for his admirable stance on terrorism, is seldom quoted when he sensibly says that America should increase its commitment to Iraq by 10,000 troops.

Let's face the unpleasant facts:
  • Al-Qaeda has historically ramped up attacks when a foreign power looks set to withdraw.
  • Zawahiri recently wrote[pdf] to Zarqawi discussing plans to fill the vacuum when America withdraws.
  • If the polls are bad for President Bush while he is 'staying the course' in Iraq, they will be worse if he 'cuts and runs', particularly as the situation in Iraq fails to improve.

    I don't mean that the current troop numbers should be maintained forever. Rather, the numbers should only be scaled down when it is clear that the troops are surplus to requirements. However, there is no need to set a deadline for complete withdrawal. There are still US troops stationed in South Korea and Japan more than 50 years after hostilities ceased in both cases, and indeed there are US troops stationed in Australia, and Australian defence personnel stationed in various friendly countries. There is no reason America should ever set a date for the withdrawal of the last soldier from Iraq, because there is no particular reason why a future independent, stable Iraq should object to a small, residual number of allied troops on its territory.

    Al-Qaeda's #3 Dies

    Finally, tonight it was reported that Al-Qaeda Operational Commander Abu Hamza ar-Rabia has been killed in Waziristan, in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. It is unclear whether he was killed by his own explosives or by Predator drones.

    What is clear is that al-Qaeda has been going through operational commanders like Kleenex - this is the first and the last most had heard of Al-Araby.

    The two top positions in al-Qaeda (the spiritual leader/figurehead and the intellectual strategist) can be performed without exposing the incumbents to attack. But the operational commander must expose himself to the risk of capture or attack if he is to be of any use to the organisation. But as Abu Hamza al Araby, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and others before them have found, it is no longer possible for al-Qaeda's centre to function operationally as it once did.

    In summary, judging from the past two months, we are slowly but steadily winning the War on Terror.

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