Failed airline attack raises fresh questions about battle against al Qaeda

December 28, 2009

departuresIn the absence of a coherent narrative about the failed Christmas Day attack on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, the debate about how best to tackle al Qaeda and its Islamist allies has once again been thrown wide open.

Does it support those who want more military pressure to deprive al Qaeda of its sanctuary on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, or suggest a more diffuse threat from sympathisers across Europe, the Middle East and Africa? Should the United States open new fronts in emerging al Qaeda bases such as Yemen and Somalia, or focus instead on the fact that the attempted airline attack did not succeed, suggesting al Qaeda’s ability to conduct mass-casualty assaults on U.S. territory has already been severely degraded in the years since 9/11?

The evidence so far about the attempt by 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to set off an explosive device on the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit can  pretty much be stacked up in favour of whatever argument you want to make.

Abdulmutallab was from a wealthy family in Nigeria, where al Qaeda and its Islamist allies have been trying to make inroads, by and large unsuccessfully so far. Residents in his family home town said they believed he was radicalised during his studies abroad, which included education at a British boarding school in Togo, followed by a course in engineering at the prestigious University College London.  He would not be the first educated young man to be inspired by Islamist radicalism in London — among those who came before him was Omar Sheikh, convicted for the kidnapping of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.

Does this mean Britain has been too soft about allowing radicalism to flourish in its universities, as the conservative Daily Telegraph argues?  Or has Britain’s own support for U.S. policies, including wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a security crackdown at home, so alienated its Muslim community that a tiny minority will turn to terrorism? (If you ask ordinary Muslims in London what should be done, they are just as likely to give you a lecture about the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, civilian casualties in Afghanistan, and Washington’s failure to insist on an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.)

Abdulmutallab’s name had been placed on a British watch-list, suggesting security is already very tight in a country which is on alert for any repeat of the London bombings in 2005.  How much tighter can it get, without a further erosion of civil liberties?

The trail from London then leads to Yemen, Osama bin Laden’s ancestral home, and a country which U.S. officials say is emerging as an attractive alternative base for al Qaeda, after it was largely pushed out of Afghanistan and has since come under growing military pressure in Pakistan. In U.S. questioning, Abdulmutallab said al Qaeda operatives in Yemen supplied him with an explosive device and trained him on how to detonate it, according to a U.S. official.

The New York Times reports that, “in the midst of two unfinished major wars, the United States has quietly opened a third, largely covert front against Al Qaeda in Yemen.”

“A year ago, the Central Intelligence Agency sent several of its top field operatives with counterterrorism experience to the country, according to a former top agency official. At the same time, some of the most secretive Special Operations commandos have begun training Yemeni security forces in counterterrorism tactics,” it quotes senior military officers as saying. “The Pentagon is spending more than $70 million over the next 18 months, and using teams of Special Forces, to train and equip Yemeni military, Interior Ministry and coast guard forces, more than doubling previous military aid levels.”

Yet Yemen is already home to a dangerous mix of insurgencies, including an intensifying conflict between the government and Shi’ite rebels in the north. In an echo of the proxy wars fought over Afghanistan in the 1980s, (whose legacy in terms of Sunni-Shi’ite tensions is still being felt in Pakistan to this day), Saudi Arabia has intervened against the northern rebels, while Iran has been accused of backing them.

And its insurgents have links which according to some reports stretch deep into the Horn of Africa,  already destabilised by Islamist insurgency in Somalia, piracy off its coastline,  and long standing rivalry between Ethiopia and Eritrea — which has seen the former intervene to oust the Islamists and the latter accused of supporting them. In short, as the United States has already discovered in Afghanistan, trying to contain al Qaeda and its Islamist allies by concentrating on one country is to ignore the non-state nature of militants who can shift elsewhere when the pressure on them becomes too intense.  Is the United States going to pursue them from Yemen, through the Horn of Africa and into the Maghreb region of North Africa?

So where does that leave the campaign against al Qaeda? The answer — at least as a response to the failed Christmas Day attack — appears to depend on where you stood before it happened.

From arguing against blowing the failed attack out of proportion (See Matthew Iglesias’ “Not so scary ‘terror’” or Juan Cole’s “Hare-brained Terrorist Attack Above Detroit“), to a counter-attack from the American right about alleged Democrat softness on security – perhaps the only real conclusion you can reach is that opinion about how best to respond to al Qaeda remains as polarised as it was during the Bush years.

“President Barack Obama’s administration has edged away from the phrase ‘global war on terror’. But we wonder if the White House appreciates how well that Bushian notion of a long and widespread struggle helps to justify Obama’s decision to further escalate U.S. efforts in Afghanistan,” the Chicago Tribune says in an editorial. “Many Americans want to be done with these terror concerns and overseas engagements. But those who weave plots against this country would love nothing better than an isolationist U.S. that waits, supine and patient, for attempted attacks …”

“Right now, in far-off lands, other plotters scheme to hurt and humiliate America. Whether any of us likes the phrase ‘global war on terror’, that’s what it is — and how it needs to be fought.”

 In a post called “al Qaeda’s Desperate Bid for Relevance”, Spencer Ackerman says the failure of the attack showed how far al Qaeda’s capabilities had  been degraded since 9/11 and argues for a more limited approach contained to finishing the task the United States has set itself in Afghanistan.

“We have a credible approach in place to break al-Qaeda’s strategic depth and core operational capability; box it into a situation where it can’t export significant acts of terror against us or our allies; and we can do this along a reasonable timetable of the next several years, prompting us to significantly draw down our military presence in Afghanistan,” he writes.

“And then the ‘Long War’ is… over. And by over, I mean that we can restore our security posture to one where terrorism is primarily an intelligence and law enforcement preoccupation, not a military one, since al-Qaeda will be the 21st century version of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a once-fearsome and now-marginal enemy. If we stop now, we risk unnecessary metastasis of al-Qaeda, giving them a new lease on life at a moment when it really looks like if we fight somewhat further we can be done with this awful problem and this painful legacy of a miserable decade.”

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