16 May 2011

Osama Bin Laden is Dead

You can celebrate retribution but not victory--for that came years ago.

In our war against terrorism, nothing has changed: Al Qaeda, after Bin Laden's death, is no more impotent than it was before. Victory, if we call it such, was found around 2005/2006 when Al Qaeda's core leadership was sufficiently forced underground and thus unable to execute attacks. That win, like the development of an all-star team, came through the dedication of many, over a period of years. And Osama bin Laden's death, though we may imagine it the three-pointer that won the championship game, was rather a closing three-pointer in a league game that had already been won by halftime.
A 2005-2006 drop in attacks reflects a US intelligence victory.
Bin Laden was beaten then.

The operation to capture Osama bin Laden began in October 2001 with a salvo of Tomahawk cruise missiles and US Special Forces directing the attack. That was followed by regular forces. After this offensive, an intense intelligence effort paired with precision drone attacks, began. And that effort evolved to become only an intelligence one, as clues of Bin Laden's existence became increasingly scarce to the point of asking if he was even alive. This evolution was a reflection of a creeping victory: as Al Qaeda's core leadership hid, including Bin Laden in Abbottabad, the ability to plan attacks evaporated.

As Al Qaeda's core became less relevant, Al Qaeda franchises and other jihadist groups grew in importance to fill the void, while taking advantage of the United States' twin distractions of Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2002 Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb formed, launching attacks regionally and threatening attacks against Spain, France and the US. In 2007 Al-Shabab in Somalia consolidated and later carried out their first international attack in 2010. And most notably, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was revived in 2006, launching attacks, although unsuccessfully, against the US. This included both Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day or Underwear Bomber in 2009 and a cargo plane bomb attack targeting Chicago synagogues in October 2010.

Not only do these two attacks demonstrate a strategic shift from centralized planning to franchise level planning, but they also highlight a third-order strategic shift. With the franchises too under scrutiny, for example the US spending millions in Yemen starting in 2009, operational planning of attacks simplified to avoid detection. No longer were attacks coordinated affairs of 19 terrorists plus numerous handlers; instead they were the result of an individual or small group. And this decentralization and simplification of planning for operational security does not end here. Attacks such as the Fort Hood shooting, perpetrated by Major Nidal Hassan, demonstrate the lowest order planning possible: the individual acting as a lone agent, learning his craft within the United States. Although Major Hassan was inspired by AQAP spiritual leader Anwar al-Awlaki, Hassan planned the attack himself. By avoiding trips abroad for terrorist training camps or working with other jihadists, Hassan was able to keep his plans secret. Following the attack, Awlaki praised Hassan and called on other Muslims in the West to conduct similar attacks. Although the effects of such attacks are less spectacular, their simplicity in this intense security environment, is an appropriate trade-off.

Al-Shamikha--Cosmo for the mujahideen's wife
In support of potential, grassroots jihadists in the West, Awlaki began publishing Inspire, a digital magazine written in English. The magazine writes on a range of topics from theology to attack planning. The article How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom shows aspiring jihadists how to conduct a deadly attack, but more important, how to do so without traveling 10,000 miles to a training camp in Yemen, risking discovery by western intelligence services.

Most recently, a similar publication called Al-Shamikha has been released. This digital publication further demonstrates the evolution of Al Qaeda from a centralized organization to the far looser organization of today. Al-Shamikha, or Majestic Women, published in Arabic, is Cosmo for the militant women. Articles include a notable, how to marry Mr Right or Marrying a Mujahideen and tips on how to maintain perfect skin by covering your face. As part of outreach efforts this may not be as dangerous as making bombs, but in a world where the jihadist threat grows increasingly diffuse, the publication of another Cosmo is indeed a brainwashing threat to women.

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