Tuesday, 30 March 2004


TERROR STATES: Fareed Zakaria argues in Newsweek that today's terrorist groups do not need state patrons to do damage:

"Afghanistan housed Al Qaeda, and thus it was crucial to attack the country. But that was less a case of a state's sponsoring a terror group and more one of a terror group's sponsoring a state. Consider the situation today. Al Qaeda has lost its base in Afghanistan, two thirds of its leaders have been captured or killed, its funds are being frozen. And yet terror attacks mount from Indonesia to Casablanca to Spain. "These attacks are not being directed by Al Qaeda. They are being inspired by it," the official told me. "I'm not even sure it makes sense to speak of Al Qaeda because it conveys the image of a single, if decentralized, group. In fact, these are all different, local groups that have in common only ideology and enemies."

This is the new face of terror: dozens of local groups across the world connected by a global ideology."

This might be true, as far as it goes, but it's not the whole story. Inspiration implies that mere ideological sympathy is enough to drive radical Islamists to violence, and that might be true in some limited cases (say, for the D.C. Sniper or the July 4th LAX gunmen).

But these disparate groups who have attacked Bali, Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have more in common than a shared lunacy: they were lead, or trained, by graduates from Al Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan. That's an important distinction - they might not follow direct orders from bin Laden, they might choose their own targets and determine their own timing, they are "home grown" to the extent that they operate on their own turf, but they would not have the skills or lethality to conduct Madrid-style massacres without the expertise honed in Afghanistan.

"Inspired" is far too loose a word. "Facilitated" is far more accurate. The terrorist skills acquired in Afghanistan have been dispersed across the globe, methodically before 9/11 and quickly and haphazardly since the camps closed down for good (we hope) in October 2001.

And how did this happen? How does this inspiration spread?

It's true that Al Qaeda is not a proxy arm of any one state's intelligence service (like Hezbollah is for Iran). Al Qaeda does not take its marching orders from any one government. But it's counter-factual to argue, as Zakaria does, that states don't matter. States were instrumental in the rise of al Qaeda, according to former Clinton counter-terrorism officials Steve Simon and Daniel Benjamin. If it were not for states, these "home grown" fanatics inspired and trained by bin Laden would not be nearly so dangerous.

According to Simon and Benjamin in The Age of Sacred Terror, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan played important roles in the development and strengthening of al Qaeda. They provided money, training, logistical support and havens for bin Laden's jihadists. bin Laden's tenure in Sudan is instructive: thanks to his close cooperation with the government (which invited him after he was expelled from Saudi Arabia), al Qaeda members were able to get Sudanese papers for international travel, as well as the luxury to establish front companies to raise the needed capital for terrorist attacks and camps to train their warriors.

They trained in Afghanistan with the help of the Pakistani government and according to the new book Ghost Wars by Washington Post reporter Steve Coll, enjoyed significant cooperation with Saudi Intelligence services.

If this isn't "state support" than the term is meaningless.

The 1998 bombing of the Sudanese "Military Industrial Company" by President Clinton is another example of the importance of, if not direct state sponsorship, than state cooperation with al Qaeda. Clinton alleged, and Simon/Benjamin flesh out, that al Qaeda, Sudan and Iraq were working together to produce VX nerve gas.

But that was pre 9/11. Zakaria argues that with Afghanistan flushed out and the world on alert, al Qaeda is even less dependent on states than before.

Perhaps. But they cannot travel without official state documentation. They can be forged, but obvious forgeries lead to arrests. The cannot operate or train en-masse without the tacit support of a government. The whole emphasis on failed states proves this point: weak states cannot prevent terrorists from setting up shop or drive out terrorists from their borders. Stronger states, like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, can.

Five lone, angry Islamists might be able to wreak unimaginable destruction. But you do not form a dispersed global network of highly trained killers without the overt assistance or acquiescence of states. Without this support, al Qaeda is unambiguously weaker, though far harder to destroy.

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