Marshalling forces: Al-Qaeda revival requires local focus

Five years ago, 19 terrorists hijacked four airplanes and changed the course of history. Any doubts that the threat to commercial aviation had receded were shattered this past August when the alleged plot to blow up ten American airliners over the Atlantic reminded us how vulnerable we still are to massive terrorist attacks.

Just as we underestimated al-Qaeda before 9/11, we risk repeating the same mistake now. Al-Qaeda today is frequently described as in retreat or, as President Bush claimed, “on the run” – a broken and beaten organization, incapable of mounting further attacks on its own, its operational authority devolved either to various affiliates and associates or to entirely home-grown, organically-produced terrorist entities.

Nothing, though, could be further from the truth. In fact, al-Qaeda is on the march. It has regrouped and reorganized from the setbacks meted out by the United States and its allies after 9/11. And it is marshalling its forces to continue the war that Osama bin Laden declared ten years ago with his then mostly ignored fatwa. Al-Qaeda is functioning just as its founders envisioned, as both an inspiration and an organization, simultaneously summoning a broad universe of like-minded extremists to violence while still providing guidance and assistance for more spectacular terrorist operations.

To illustrate, consider what we have learned from the London 2005 bombings. Initially, British authorities concluded it was the work of disaffected British Muslims, self-radicalized, self-selected, operating entirely within that country. We now know, however, that the cell’s ringleader, Mohammed Sidique Khan, along with a fellow bomber named Shehzad Tanweer, visited Pakistani terrorist camps between November 2004 and February 2005, where they not only received training in terrorist operations and tradecraft but also quite possibly met with al-Qaeda operatives.

Planning for their attack began immediately upon their return to England in February 2005. Both men also recorded so-called martyrdom videos during their visit to Pakistan. The videos’ production and distribution was handled by al-Sahab (The Clouds), al-Qaeda’s perennially active communications department and the principle cipher for all of bin Laden’s and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s video and audio tapes. Al-Zawahiri, in fact, claimed credit for the attacks in the name of al-Qaeda, an admission largely ignored. In addition, following the attack when Khan’s photograph was a staple of nightly newscasts and on the front page of daily newspapers across the globe, a source working for Britain’s security service claimed to have seen him in an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan in either 1999 or 2000. And finally, a BBC documentary broadcast last July reported that during the summer of 2001 Khan allegedly trolled Britain’s Muslim communities for new al-Qaeda recruits.

The London bombing’s pedigree, moreover, is familiar as well. In 2003, British and American authorities disrupted a plot by a London-based al-Qaeda cell to carry out simultaneous attacks on the CitiCorp Centre in Manhattan, the Prudential Centre in Newark, NJ, and the International Monetary Fund/World Bank headquarters in Washington, DC. It subsequently emerged that a protégé of the 9/11 mastermind, Khaled Shaikh Mohammed, was operating in Lahore and was the essential nexus between the London cell and al-Qaeda commanders operating out of Waziristan. The cell’s leader, Dhiren Barot, a.k.a. Issa al-Hindi, recently pleaded guilty to these charges as well as to additional plots in the UK. According to the testimony at his trial, Barot was not seeking to kill large numbers of people with a dirty bomb. Rather, he understood very clearly the corrosive psychological impact on society that an unconventional weapon like a radiological device could have.

And so it is with other cases. Spanish authorities now intimate that evidence is accumulating that al-Qaeda may have been behind the 2004 Madrid bombings. And last summer’s plot to simultaneously bomb US airlines was foiled after an arrest in Pakistan again led British and US officials to another British Muslim terrorist cell planning to attack American targets based in the UK. Indeed, the plan bears all the hallmarks of al-Qeada.

Just as disquieting, perhaps, is that the August plot was directed not against the softer, more accessible targets like metros and commuter trains, hotels and tourist destinations that we have assumed a degraded al-Qaeda was only capable of, but rather against arguably the most internationally harden target set since 9/11 – commercial aviation. This alarming development calls into question some of our most basic and fundamental assumptions about terrorist targeting, tactics and capabilities.

THE PRE-EMINENT CHALLENGE that we face can best be summed up by testimony before the UK House of Commons committee on intelligence and security, which investigated the 7/7 bombings and released its report last May. This testimony given by two persons at the apex of Britain’s counterterrorism establishment, describes the assumptions and intelligence analysis that guided counterterrorism planning and policy in the UK before 7/7. “We were working off a script,” Andrew Hayman, the assistance commissioner for specialist operations in Scotland Yard, told the parliamentary committee, “which had actually been completely discounted from reality.”

Similarly, Tim Dowse, chief of the assessments staff, testified, “I think the more we learned over this period of several years, the more we began to realize the limits of what we knew. Accordingly, we all will only succeed against this enemy when we can be confident that our relevant intelligence assessments and analyses are anchored firmly to sound empirical judgment and are not blinded by mirror imaging, politically partisan prisms and wishful thinking.”

Linking the local level
In specific practical terms, what does this mean for intelligence on terrorism? The past five years have largely involved a focus on top-down efforts, building federal capacity and reforming and reorganizing the highest intelligence echelons for the war on terrorism. I would propose that the next five years should concentrate on building capacity from the bottom up, by more energetically and creatively involving local, state, and provincial police and law enforcement agencies in counterterrorism.

These personnel are perhaps the best positioned to observe and detect criminal and other activity that might be the first signs of a terrorist plot, but might also be pivotal in helping to thwart terrorist attacks before they occur. Providing police with information and the intelligence resources they need to make sense of what they encounter on the ground, and then endowing them with the capacity to share their observations and concerns with federal intelligence and law enforcement, would greatly strengthen our counterterrorist capabilities across the board.

In many respects, local police have knowledge and other attributes that reflect very closely the communities they serve. The New York City police department, for instance, has 275 certified interpreters of some 45 different foreign languages, among them Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, Pashtun. By comparison, the Washington Post recently reported that only one percent, or fewer than 33, agents in the FBI had even limited proficiency in Arabic.

Second, fusion centres that integrate law enforcement both vertically and horizontally, and educate police about intelligence collection and analysis and the intelligence cycle, are also critical. At a time when terrorists deliberately use suburbs as staging areas and navigate across the cracks between municipal and surrounding jurisdictions, lashing up police work throughout metropolitan areas and across municipalities on all three levels of government is critical.

Finally, fighting terrorists depends on allies. The immense importance of bilateral and multi-lateral cooperation is only accentuated in these circumstances. In this respect, it is stating the obvious to say that effective counterterrorism depends now more than ever on international cooperation and active liaison not only between intelligence and security services, but also between police forces. It means developing new, transnational policing, networking and training initiatives.

More important is the need to institutionalize bilateral cross-posting and international exchanges of police and other law enforcement personnel such as those pioneered by the NYC police department.

IN SUM, terrorists must be fought just as effectively on the local and community as on the global and regional levels. The cop on the beat is as invaluable as the agent operating internationally in identifying, preventing and foiling terrorist plots and plans. Accordingly, we need to institutionalize training on terrorism as part of every police officer’s basic instruction and supplement that with specialized advanced courses as needed and as appropriate.

Eliza Manningham-Buller, the director general of Britain’s security service, in her testimony before a House of Commons committee, said: “We will continue to stop most of them, but we will not stop all of them.” This is the proper expectation we need to have about terrorism and countering terrorism. We are neither defenceless nor powerless, nor are we at the terrorists’ mercy. But the reality is that terrorism is an integral fact of life in the 21st Century and we will inevitably continue to be vulnerable. The challenge is to learn from both our successes as well as our mistakes, and to learn as much from failed as successful terrorist attacks, and to realize that just as terrorists are always evolving and adapting, so must our agencies, operations and mindsets to this threat.

The author of the highly acclaimed Inside Terrorism, Bruce Hoffman is the former chairman of counterterrorism at the RAND Corporation. He is a professor of security studies at the Edmund A Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Combating Terrorism Centre, US Military Academy.

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