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July 07, 2005

Al Qaeda -- A Strategic Error?
Posted by Michael Signer

My heart goes out not just to Great Britain and Londoners as a whole but to many friends at my former law firm who work in London.  Amid this agony, the horror, and the pain of this morning, I want to try and take a step back -- if that's possible -- and suggest that Al Qaeda may have made a strategic error today.  The long-term consequences of this act may in fact help the GWOE (Global War on Extremism) rather than hurt it.

Tony Blair is saying that the attack was timed to coincide with G-8:

"Just as it is reasonably clear that this is a terrorist attack or a series of terrorist attacks, it is also reasonably clear that it is designed and aimed to coincide with the opening of the G-8." 

Yet the group claiming responsibility, the "Secret Al Qaeda Jihad Organization in Europe," is saying instead that the attack was meant to retaliate for Great Britain's cooperation with the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If Al Qaeda was intending the second aim but has stumbled into the first, I hope and pray that they have made a drastic miscalculation.  By hitting Great Britain at a time of most intimate involvement with the leaders of the world community -- not just at the G-8 summit but immediately after, for God's sake, the choice of London for the Olympics -- then Al Qaeda has f'ed this one up badly. 

The Bush Administration has screwed up world opinion so badly with Iraq that we had major countries like France and Germany (not to mention China) teetering on the edge of sympathy with Islamic extremists pleading American imperialism.  This just might be the Al Qaeda mistake we need to get the entire world community firmly back on the right side -- emotionally, diplomatically, militarily.

Not much of a silver lining, but it's something.


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For those of you who are like Michael and are looking for a silver lining (increased cooperation and support for US policy in Iraq) in these attacks there is one thing that you all better hope for: that it is homegrown. On the issue of bleed out from Iraq, I quote a counterterrorism official in the Washington Post on 5/29/05:

"If you don't know who they are in Iraq, how are you going to to locate them in Istanbul or London?"

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the whole "fly paper" strategy debate over Iraq's porous borders is how it ignores the critical issue of fighters LEAVING Iraq as opposed to coming in. That's as great a danger if not greater than fighters coming into Iraq to kill coalition troops. The sand in the hour glass is thinning in terms of attacks carried out in cities abroad by individuals who have fought and trained in Iraq and then departed for their home countries. There is no evidence that today's attack are a result of bleed out, but there is a 99% chance that future attacks will be. At that point, I don't believe other countries will be thrilled or willing to participate in Iraq, a war the U.S. started out of its own choosing. There will be no silver lining as such. It will only be an additional black eye for the U.S. and will significantly raise international ire about U.S. policy in Iraq. Nobody wants to clean up our mess nor should they have to. It will not be a good day when the United States has to stand before the public of another country and explain to them that our woefully counterproductive policy in Iraq has in fact directly contributed to an attack in their country. Don't expect them to rush to our side at that time. Holding somebody over the barrell of terrorism and chaos in Iraq is no way to encourage international cooperation.

Micheal Singer,

How will this attack help the so-called GWOE?

Not to be pedantic, but your point isn't make very clearly.

I have to respectfully disagree with Mr. Singer's conclusion. Today's attack in London was not a mistake for the Al Qaeda organization, rather, it illustrated the potency and effectiveness of Al Qaeda's operations.

The terrorist network has adapted, becoming more decentralized and recruiting more jihadists around the world. Al Qaeda, in a sense, has become more than an organization--it has become a philosophy.

The subway bombings mirrored the attacks in Madrid that led to a reversal of Spain's policy in Iraq. The same may be true for the UK. Tony Blair's position as PM may well be imperiled, as the British people begin to question his policies in Iraq and his association with Bush. Withdrawal of British troops from Iraq may ensue.

Al Qaeda's decision to attack the UK was a brilliant tactical move: it could split the UK from the US and lead to less popular support for the Iraq war and the fight against terrorism. Ultimately, the US may lose another ally in Iraq, making operations there more dangerous.

My deepest sympathies go out to the British people, who have had to endure terrorism of this sort.

The reversal of Spain's Iraq policy led to a crackdown in that country on terrorists already there, they just shifted focus from a foreign target to their own borders. Probably a good plan for spain.

The problem is, how will this enhanced unity help, if the US is rallying the West behind its cynical and ultimately backfiring 'flypaper' strategy? ('Cynical' because it in effect says it's better if terrorists blow up Iraqis rather than Westerners.)

If US actions cause the Muslim world to be increasingly unsympathetic to us, that fundamentally aids the terrorist cause. If you're a Muslim in Syria or Jordan or Egypt, or in London or Paris or Detroit, your likelihood of reporting suspicious behavior by your co-religionists to the authorities will have a lot to do with your comparative attitudes towards America and al-Qaeda.

IOW, when we Americans pursue a "blowing s**t up" policy in Iraq, it reduces the likelihood of our getting good intelligence elsewhere, and gives the terrorists a larger sea that they can swim in, undetected by us.

Now, under those circumstances, what good will a "rally 'round the GWOE" wave of sentiment actually do?

... "Al Qaeda may have made a strategic error today" ..

Even this way of putting it seems to give the perpetrators too much credit. It assumes that there still remains some sort of global organization called "Al-Qaeda", and that that organization possesses something one might describe as a strategy.

My impression is that what we have now are a bunch of scattered, fellow-travelling Sunni jihadist groups, each imbibing to some degree the ideology of "Al-Qaedism", in sporadic and informal communication with other nearby groups of the same nature, and occasionally capable of mounting destructive, but mainly local, attacks.

Occasionally, one of these groups decides to lay claim to the title "Al-Qaeda in Rome", or "Al-Qaeda in London" or "Al-Qaeda in Jersey City" and carry out some attack to convince others, and themselves, or their own importance.

If this is the situation, it is not surprising that the actions of these groups lack strategic coherence, or sometimes fall short of atrategic brilliance.


The absense of central control of al Qaeda basically refutes Bush's whole strategy on terrorism.

Bush's strategy assumes that their are a certain number of "evil" Arab Muslims that came together to defeat al Qaeda. The Bush strategy calls for identifying and killing all these evil doers.

Having a bunch of autonomous cells means the Bush strategy has no chance of success. There can be no big victory to score a knockout blow. And new cells seem to be forming faster than the existing ones are neutralized.

The Bush Administration has screwed up world opinion so badly with Iraq that we had major countries like France and Germany (not to mention China) teetering on the edge of sympathy with Islamic extremists pleading American imperialism.

This is misleading. France has diplomatic disagreements with the US- and, of course, puts it's own interests first- but France is closely cooperating at an operational level WRT counter-terrorist activities. Why? Because they remember Algeria. They just don't publicize what they're doing, for good reasons.

China, like France, has little reason to like islamic militants (look into what's been going on in their far western provinces sometime), and China has it's own reasons for thinking that things that take the US down a notch are not entirely bad things- but that doesn't mean they'd do anything to overtly support it. After all, anything that can take the US down a notch can take China down three notches, and the Chinese know it.


As far as Carl's comment is concerned, if Al Qaeda lacks centralized control, it's because Bush's strategy has been successful, not because it's failed- do you think Bin Laden and the like intended to be unable to excercise operational control over their followers? Unable to carry out operations that killed thousands of infidels at a time? Unable to do much of anything besides inspire people who aren't even sure if the guy is still alive?

No, that wasn't their plan. As with most plans, al Qaeda's did not survive contact with the enemy. Instead, there are a bunch of autonomous groups reduced to leaving backpacks full of explosives on trains, killing dozens or hundreds of infidels, instead of hijacking jetliners and killing thousands. Al Qaeda's ability to kill has been reduced by at least an order of magnitude, maybe two, and only someone blinded by partisanship would fail to see that, or to consider it a success.

It is misguided to view the decreasing magnitude of AQ's attacks (in comparison to those of 9/11) as a sure fire sign of the group's weakness and inability to conduct large scale operations. It must be remembered that prior to 9/11 the number of dead per AQ attack around the world was about the same if not fewer. Clearly we were misguided to think they were incapable of large scale attacks back then and it is a mistake (as well as misplaced triumphalism) to think so today. Undoubtedly AQ has been disrupted and their capabilities have been degraded, but they clearly adapt and many possibilities remain for the future.

// This just might be the Al Qaeda mistake we need to get the entire world community firmly back on the right side - emotionally, diplomatically, militarily. // Michael

The underlying assumption here is that Bush wants the world community's help. Biden has said that the Europeans have been offering to train Iraqi forces for 2 years now, and Bush has refused. IOW, the ball is in Bush's court, not France or Germany's.

IMO, this is a flawed premise which seems to be held by all the posters on this site. You assume Bush believes as you do that getting international help for this occupation would be a good thing. He doesn't.

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