United States intelligence indicates Osama bin Laden is encouraging al Qaeda in Iraq’s commander, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to attack the United States homeland. Zarqawi is al Qaeda’s most deadly operative, and has claimed responsibility for an attack on a medical clinic which has killed over 125 Iraqis in the town of Hillah. The citizens of Hillah are furious; “2,000 residents held an impromptu demonstration at the site of the bombing, outside a medical clinic, during which they condemned terrorism and criticized the government for not halting it.” As acts of terrorism such as this continue, the newly elected Iraqi government, which is now responsible to the people, will be forced to step up operations against the terrorist to quell the violence.
Osama bin Laden’s push for attacks in the United States by Zarqawi highlights several weaknesses in the current state of al Qaeda; a lack of experienced operatives and military and political pressure have forced the organization to modify its operations.
Zarqawi is presently embroiled in a fierce terror campaign in Iraq, and bin Laden’s request for his expertise in outside of Iraq is curious. American intelligence and military sources believe the hunt for Zarqawi is proceeding successfully, feel it is a matter of time before he is detained or captured and are shrinking his support system daily. General Abizaid feels the insurgency in Iraq is weakening (hat tip Instapundit). Former Marine, Special Forces operative and Assistant Secretary of Defense, and syndicated columnist Jack Kelly states Iraq is “all but won”. Austin Bay, who recently served in Iraq, says we have reached a tipping point not just in Iraq, but also in the entire war.
Requesting Zarqawi to operate outside of the Iraq Theater indicates that al Qaeda may not have experienced operatives available. The list of al Qaeda’s know leadership killed or captured contains the most seasoned, experienced and deadly members, including Hambali, Mohammed Atef, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaida, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani and Ali Abdul Rahman al-Ghamdi. These are men who have real world experience in planning and conducting numerous terrorist operations, including the attack on the USS Cole, 9/11 and the bombing of US embassies in Africa. Operatives of this nature are not easily replaced, and when they have, it has been by less experienced members, some of whom are quickly removed from service by Coalition operations. As al Qaeda goes to its B and C-Team for leadership, the quality and pace of operations degrade. Tapping Zarqawi indicates he is one of the few leaders able to successfully plan and conduct attacks within the United States. And it may also be an admission that Iraq as situated is unwinnable, and Zarqawi’s talents could be better put to use elsewhere instead of being wasted in a losing cause.
Shifting operations back to the United States homeland also indicates al Qaeda is under great pressure to carry out attacks inside the United States. Its recent string of military and political defeats on the battlefields of the Middle East – Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other nations – have been humiliating experiences and has cost al Qaeda prestige. Osama may see the need to attack the US directly in order to boost the morale of his fighters, increase the recruiting potential of al Qaeda, and reestablish it as an organization capable of striking America and her allies at will.
Redirecting critical resources back to the US homeland an admission of failure of al Qaeda’s plans. Rohan Gunaratna, in his seminal book Inside al Qaeda, summarizes al Qaeda strategies for the short, medium and long term (page 84):
“As defined by Osama, Al Qaeda has short, middle and long term-strategies. Before 9/11, its immediate goal was the withdrawal of US troops from Saudi Arabia and the creation there of a Caliphate. Its mid-term strategy was the ouster of the “apostate rulers” of the Arabian Peninsula and thereafter the Middle East and the creation of true Islamic states. And the long-term strategy was to build a formidable array of Islamic state – including ones with nuclear capability – to wage war on the US (he “Great Satan”) and its allies.”
The attacks on 9/11 were an attempt to knock America from the Middle Eastern stage. Al Qaeda believed the United States would withdraw from the region, but instead the US pursued a strategy of active engagement in the region. Al Qaeda’s mid-term goal of the creation of Islamic states has been a unmitigated failure, and in fact the opposite is happening – the creation of democratic states which are anathema to al Qaeda’s Islamist ideology. The base of operations for Osama’s terrorists and the model Islamic government of the Taliban in Afghanistan crumbled under the weight of American military pressure. Iraq followed shortly. Lebanon is close to obtaining freedom from Syrian rule. Free elections are planned in Egypt. Women may vote soon in Saudi Arabia. And so on.
Al Qaeda has been forced to reach out to its long-term strategy of attacking and engaging the United States directly, without the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate or the possession of a nuclear arsenal. Organizations to not discard their long-term business plan willy-nilly. Much thought and effort is put into long term planning, and the press of current events and the perception of future changes will force organizations to make radical changes. Al Qaeda appears to have made such a radical change of its strategy.
Shifting Zarqawi from Iraq to devote time to the North American Theater should not be viewed as a sign of strength for al Qaeda. He is by far al Qaeda’s most formable operative and would present a serious security problem for Homeland defenses, but this move must be looked at in the greater context of the war and the difficult political and military situation al Qaeda finds itself three years after America’s entry in the war.
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