Given the debate about whether the United States should refocus its strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan more narrowly on hunting down al Qaeda, it’s worth looking at what happened immediately after 9/11 when it did precisely that.
In a new book
about his years fighting terrorism, former French investigating magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguiere casts fresh light on those early years after 9/11. At the time, he says, the Bush administration was so keen to get Pakistan’s help in defeating al Qaeda that it was willing to turn a blind eye to Pakistani support for militant groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, nurtured by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to fight India in Kashmir.
Basing his information on testimony given by jailed Frenchman Willy Brigitte, who spent 2-1/2 months in a Lashkar training camp in 2001/2002, he writes that the Pakistan Army once ran those camps
, with the apparent knowledge of the CIA. The instructors in the camp in Pakistan’s Punjab province were soldiers on detachment, he says, and the army dropped supplies by helicopter. Brigitte’s handler, he says, appeared to have been a senior army officer who was treated deferentially by other soldiers.
CIA officers even inspected the camp four times, he writes, to make sure that Pakistan was keeping to a promise that only Pakistani fighters would be trained there. Foreigners like Brigitte were tipped off in advance and told to hide up in the hills to avoid being caught.
Reluctant to destabilise Pakistan, then under former president Pervez Musharraf, the United States turned a blind eye to the training camps and poured money into the country. In return, Pakistan hunted down al Qaeda leaders — among them alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, captured in 2003. ”For the Bush administration, the priority was al Qaeda,” writes Bruguiere. ”The Pakistan Army and the ISI would focus on this – external – objective, which would not destabilise the fragile political balance in Pakistan.”
Pakistan denies that it gave military support to the Lashkar-e-Taiba and has banned the organisation. But India at the time accused western countries of double standards in tolerating Pakistani support for Kashmir-focused organisations while pushing it to tackle groups like al Qaeda which threatened Western interests. Diplomats say that attitude has since changed, particularly after bombings in London in 2005 highlighted the risks of “home-grown terrorism” in Britain linked to Kashmir-oriented militant groups based in Pakistan’s Punjab province.
Last year’s attack on Mumbai, blamed on the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and more recently the arrest in Chicago of David Headley
, linked to the Lashkar-e-Taiba and accused of planning attacks in Denmark and India (pdf document
), has underlined international concern about the threat posed by the group
But for Bruguiere, one of the major lessons was that Islamist militants can’t be separated into “good guys and bad guys”, since they were all inter-linked.
“You should take into account, this is crucial, very, very important,” Bruguiere told me in an interview
. “Lashkar-e-Taiba is no longer a Pakistan movement with only a Kashmir political or military agenda. Lashkar-e-Taiba is a member of al Qaeda. Lashkar-e-Taiba has decided to expand the violence worldwide.”
Bruguiere said he became aware of the changing nature of international terrorism while investigating attacks in Paris in the mid-1990s by the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA). These included an attempt to hijack a plane from Algiers to Paris in 1994 and crash it into the Eiffel Tower — a forerunner of the 9/11 attacks. The plane was diverted to Marseilles and stormed by French security forces.
This new style of international terrorism was quite unlike militant groups he had investigated in the past, with their pyramidal structures. ”After 1994/1995, like viruses, all the groups have been spreading on a very large scale all over the world, in a horizontal way and even a random way,” he said. “All the groups are scattered, very polymorphous and even mutant.”
Gone were the political objectives which drove terrorism before, he writes, to be replaced with a nihilistic aim of spreading chaos in order to create the conditions for an Islamic caliphate. For the hijackers on the Algiers-Paris flight, their demands seemed almost incidental. “We realised we faced the language of hatred and a total determination to see it through.”
Many have argued against this view of international terrorism as a new and nebulous Islamist network without obvious political objectives, which found its most powerful expression in al Qaeda. Just as Lashkar-e-Taiba grew out of rivalry between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, the GIA sprang from anger about the annulment of elections in Algeria that an Islamist group was poised to win. Its attacks on Paris in the mid 1990s were seen as a reprisal for France’s role in supporting the government in its former colony. Many of those who support al Qaeda and other Islamist groups are driven by anger over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other perceived injustices across the Middle East.
Yet if he is right that the United States and its allies are facing a loose international network of Islamists with no clear pyramid structure, then it would suggest that no amount of drone bombing of al Qaeda and the Taliban leadership of the kind promoted by counter-terrorism supporters would work. Nor would it be enough, alone, to address political grievances at a national level without taking account of a network which operates globally and does not recognise the validity of the nation state. Rather, you would need a sophisticated and comprehensive strategy which went far beyond the kind of focused counter-terrorism first used by the Bush administration.