There are times when you look back and wish you’d had the courage to say what you were thinking. With me it’s a spotty record: Sometimes I do, but more often I wimp out. I wish now I’d said the first thing that came into my head when I started hearing about Al Qaeda, which was, “No, it can’t be. Violates every rule of guerrilla organization.”
People are starting to see that now, starting to doubt whether there is such a thing—but that’s only because Al Qaeda has been no-showing like the Second Coming. Libya was the latest place it was supposed to show up. Egypt before that. Remember Glenn Beck talking about the Caliphate? For that matter, remember Glenn Beck? God, there’s another freak who you’d think couldn’t exist. But he did, running on fumes, just like Al Qaeda. Beck is in the Second-Coming business himself, but his Jesus is Osama and he made his money predicting Squidward-with-a-beard
His tentacles of terror reach everywhere!
would show up in Encino any day. The Egyptian revolution was just Al Qaeda in disguise as a few million yuppies. Libya was the same Osama-of-a-thousand-faces, this time as a mixed crowd of bored kids and their dads. Wherever it was, Cairo or Benghazi, it was Osama by another name.
It never made sense. That’s what I wish I’d said sooner and louder and more often. The whole concept of Al Qaeda is wrong. The name means “The Base” in Arabic, and the idea is that it’s a central clearinghouse for dozens of different guerrilla groups, sharing an Islamic ideology but representing different countries and tribes and languages. They get together and share intelligence and personnel and materiel, because they’re all good Muslims working for a common cause. It’s the old kiddie dream of a vast umbrella group of baddies, S.P.E.C.T.R.E from Man from Uncle, KAOS in Get Smart, the ridiculous villain and his volcano HQ in every lame Bond film.
“Let’s have a terror jamboree and share ideas and secret identies!”
It’s just a terrible idea. The last thing any sane guerrilla group wants to do is to go to an international guerrilla jamboree like the Boy Scouts. Sure, you’ll share ideas and prop up each others’ morale—and in the meantime, the informers—because every decent-sized guerrilla group must assume it’s been penetrated—will be taking careful notes, taking quiet candid pictures, and putting together organizational charts. By the time you go to your home country from the big Jihad Jamboree in Waziristan or Tora Bora, you can be sure that the informers have shared their info with their handlers. And although some intel agencies can be stingy, most of them share info very readily, so every informer has in effect given the breakdown of every local group to every intel agency in the world.
And that’s death to a guerrilla, literally death, and not a quick or easy death either. Sharing info is good for intelligence agencies (most of the time; there are exceptions, like sharing the identity of some agents), but it’s the worst thing in the world for guerrillas.
That’s why guerrilla groups either start out with or switch to cell style organizations. Many times you’ll see a guerrilla group starting out imitating military organization, with big units and uniforms and parades. That’s asking to be wiped out. Sometimes they are wiped out; but if they survive, their second coming always involves switching to four-person cells, where three out of four members don’t know anything except the identity of the other cell members. And even the fourth, the cell leader, only knows the identity of one contact in the larger organization.
By bringing Jihadis from around the world to get Osama’s blessing, Al Qaeda was giving them a short-term boost in morale and finances but pretty much guaranteeing they’d be penetrated and destroyed within a few years. And that’s what happened: a big splash on 9/11, a few aftershocks in East Africa, Bali, Madrid and London, and then nothing but cops breaking down doors all over the world to the soundtrack of Hellfire missiles from Predator drones vaporizing mud houses in Northern Pakistan.
What made Al Qaeda so scary was that they went all out, in an age where the military norm is to use a tiny little fraction of your actual power. To see that style in action, just look at Libya now: NATO has the largest common air force in the world and could make every Qaddafi-held town in Libya a column of black smoke in a few minutes, but what they actually do is hold a classic EU discussion before taking out a single tank.
Al Qaeda made its mark by using everything they had. Every contact in every country. Every dime of finance. Every pound of plastique. Every willing suicide bomber. They literally doubled up on their attacks, trying for at least two big targets every time: the WTC, Pentagon and White House on 9/11, multiple tube stations on 7/7, two Israeli vacation spots and a US Embassy in Kenya. That sort of splurging really shocked bureaucrats who’ve spent their lives hedging their bets. And it worked, short-term; it made Al Qaeda look much bigger and more important than it really was. For that matter, the only reason they lasted as long as they did is that Western intel didn’t have any decent Arabic-speaking specialists. They weren’t enthusiastic about real terrorists; too sweaty, too foreign. Up until 9/11 forced their hand, they wanted to focus on the real threat: “Eco-terrorists,” a couple dozen hippies in the nice cool Oregon forests, where there are some pretty comfy hotels a fed can relax in, and the suspects speak English.
If we’d stepped back and looked coldly at the damage after 9/11, it wouldn’t have made such an impression. Three thousand dead, from a population of 300 million. Two large buildings destroyed—about like two trees in the concrete forest of Manhattan. If you ask me, what really hurt us on that day was that the plane aimed at the White House didn’t make it. That’s the way to hurt America: Leave Bush in charge, with a big boost of patriotic gullibility, for six long years. That’s how they really got us. If the preachers had focused on that angle I’d have bought it: “God is punishing America by turning away the plane that was heading for Pennsylvania Avenue! He could have removed the curse and chose not to! Woe unto us!”
There’s a story on the BBC now asking “Where’s Al Qaeda in Libya?” The answer comes down the page where these British agents say how amazed they are that so many young men who were screaming Jihadis last year are now pushing for cellphone revolutions, Cairo style.
“…jihadists…in Libya [are changing] the way they behave and talk in the past two months.
“The way they start to make statements or to understand the conflicts is unbelievable, beyond my imagination. The only explanation I can offer is because they have been affected – whether they like it or not – by the wave of democracy.”
Now there are a couple of ways you can read that news. The one the BBC wants you to buy is that democracy is winning, yay yay yay. And in a way that’s true, if by “democracy” you mean “riots in the streets of Cairo and open warfare in Libya.” Those ways sure worked better than the Brotherhood’s slow sneaky method, or Zawahiri’s offshoot of the Brotherhood, Al Qaeda.
But look back with a good cold eye at what Al Qaeda was and you see they only recruited well in one demographic: Middle/Upper-Class, Not-That-Bright, Middle Eastern Surplus Young Men. There are a lot of those around, thanks to oil money and high birth rates, and they bounce. That’s what they do: they bounce from prostitutes and cognac in Paris to cults in Denmark to one after another school, pretending to be “studying” to become whatever lame childish job takes their fancy and spends their stipends without asking too much. They’re “going to become” lawyers or doctors or work for the UN or they’ve developed a perpetual motion machine or they’re going to bring Islam to the spiritually starved masses of Warsaw—every dumb-ass project a bunch of pampered hicks can come up with. Just imagine an Islamic Jethro from Beverly Hillbillies going down the list with dad’s money: “Ah’m gonna be a doctor, Grannie! …A preacher! …A Inventor!” And every time, it’s slapstick failure. And the older and more annoyed he gets at the way the world won’t let him play the hero, Jethro moves down the list to: “Ah’m gonna be a martyr, Granny!”
Why not? People go back to their roots. Here just as much as there. How many hippies mutated back to real-estate agents in California? How many cokeheads are fulltime Christians now? You warp back to your Granny’s dreams when you’ve shot your own bolt.
And there you are: Mohammed Atta and his overpriced friends with one last chance to show how important they are.
Sorry, Osama–he’s moved on to cellphones and democracy.
That’s a short-term demographic, those dudes. They got no discipline. FARC wouldn’t have them on a bet. They’re good for a big splash, which is all they ever wanted anyway, but when you look back, what you see is a cadre of Afghan vets, funded by western intel all the way, who carried a lot of momentum away from the war against the Soviets, made a lot of connections, and tried playing way above their weight for a little while. It scared the ordinary morons, and that suited the suits like it always does. But along the way they were spending everything they had like New Russians. They spent their best recruits, blew their connections on short-term show-off blasts, and in a few years they had nothing left, and the demographic they drew from—flighty young guys at loose ends in the big cities of the Middle East—had moved on to cellphones and “democracy.”
It’s a fast, lively story but with no military significance that I can see, except if you consider Al Qaeda the propaganda wing of the Republican Party. In that way, yeah, you could say they did a lot. For a patient, intelligent future guerrilla, the lesson is plain: draw from a more serious demographic, don’t go to international jamborees, and spend your assets carefully.
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