Counter-Terrorism: October 14, 2004


Al Qaeda no longer exists. Al Qaeda means the base in Arabic. Its an accurate name for an organization that sought to replace the Cold War era terrorist sanctuaries and support services that made possible the first wave of Arab terrorism in the 1960s and 70s. Back then, the Soviet Union established training camps, and university level instruction, for Arabs wishing to commit terrorist acts in the West. The Soviets also provided sanctuary. In addition, the Soviets helped Arab nations, like Syria and Iraq, establish terrorist training camps, and provided advice on how to support terrorism without getting caught by the victims. For about ten years, Al Qaeda replaced the former Soviet terrorism support. But now, without a sanctuary to operate from, the base is no more.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 eventually brought an end to Russian support for Arab terrorists. The Soviet war inside Afghanistan soon became seen throughout the Arab world as a war against Islam. While secular Arabs were happy to accept terrorist training from the Soviets, Islamic radicals knew very well that the Soviets were hard core communists who spurned all religions. 

Al Qaeda sort of evolved in Pakistan, where Arab money (mostly from Saudi Arabia), American weapons and Pakistani permission and organization, came together to form a support base for the jihad (holy war) against the Godless Soviet communists in Afghanistan. When the Russians got tired of fighting Afghans, and left in 1987, the Arab money and American weapons disappeared as well. Afghanistan quickly degenerated into civil war, and most of the Islamic radicals went home. There they found a hostile reception. Strong Islamic radical groups in Egypt were crushed. Osama bin Laden was driven out of Saudi Arabia. Islamic radicals were not welcome in any Islamic country.

Then things turned around in Afghanistan, when Pakistan had decided to use Islamic radicalism for their own ends. First Pakistan backed Islamic radicals intent on driving India out of Kashmir. Then Pakistan decided to end the Afghan civil war by getting behind a movement by Islamic conservatives. This was the Taliban. First formed in Pakistani refugee camps, and armed by Pakistan, the Taliban swept into Afghanistan and defeated all the other factions. The Afghan people were fed up with the warlords fighting over who would control the country, and saw the Taliban as heavily armed religious fanatics who were at least honest (in an Islamic way.) 

But the Taliban did have an agenda, and it was the establishment of a religious dictatorship. The one flaw in this plan was that the Taliban enforced Islam as interpreted by some of the Pushtun tribes in southern Afghanistan. The Pushtuns were only 40 percent of the population, and the Pushtun tribes the Taliban came from were a fraction of that. Resentment began to build in the late 1990s, and non-Pushtuns in northern Afghanistan (the Northern Alliance) continued fighting the Taliban. Fortunately for the Taliban, they had given Osama bin Laden, and his al Qaeda organization, sanctuary in 1994. Bin Laden arrived as the Taliban were still in the process of fighting for control of Afghanistan. From the beginning, al Qaeda provided the Taliban with technical support, and gunmen who were more ruthless and deadly than your average Afghan warrior. By the late 1990s, the al Qaeda brigade was a principal means of enforcing Taliban rule in many parts of the country. 

But for seven years, al Qaeda had a place to set up shop. This included training camps, support activities and a safe place for terrorists to rest up between missions. The support activities included a forged document operation that had a store front outlet, in plain sight. The training camps were out in the hills, but many senior al Qaeda officials hung out in Kabul and other cities. Bin Laden understood how effective a base was to the success of a world wide terrorism campaign against the West. Many more networks of terrorists could be kept active, and given the support they needed to go from a bunch of eager guys talking big, to an effective team that could make, plant and set off bombs. The base was also a place where al Qaeda could develop more powerful tools, like chemical and biological weapons. Evidence of this was found when the Taliban were overthrown in late 2001. Afghanistan also provided al Qaeda with a safe delivery address if they ever managed to buy a nuclear weapon from someone. 

But now the Afghanistan base has been gone for three years, and al Qaeda has not been able to replace it. This has stopped al Qaeda ambitious attack plans, and made terrorists, or wannabes, easier to catch. Sanctuaries are harder to come by (even Iran and Syria are not all that safe, for different reasons.) Most of al Qaedas senior leaders have been killed or captured. Many of the replacements have met a similar fate, and nearly everyone involved with running al Qaeda lives in fear of discovery, arrest or death. 

Al Qaeda was always feared for the loose relationship the many small Islamic terrorist groups, spread all over the planet, had with each other. What made these many groups (mostly composed of eager amateurs) really dangerous was their access to professional terrorists via al Qaeda. The eager amateurs no longer have an easy to find base. In fact, since September 11, 2001, the police have been more successful at finding these terrorists, than the terrorists have been in finding the many bits of al Qaeda out there. The base is no longer the base. 




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