January 02, 2004

Competing Visions: Al Queda

Steven Den Beste, Wretchard, Dan Darling, Brian Ulrich and Michael Scott Doran have created something of a grand debate without ever intending to.

All these writers have touched (in varying amounts and not necessarily as their main point) on the question of Al Queda and how they are doing. From different viewpoints the come at the problem of whether Al Queda has had successes and whether those successes will be sufficient to keep their regeneration rate above their attrition rate.

Steven Den Beste's essay, though I read it nearly last, speaks to the question most directly. His article, mainly on counter-intelligence, makes the assertion that Al Queda is has not been doing so well on the victory front:

They're trying to recruit people and trying to rebuild their organization and trying to maintain the flow of money, and all of those things will be increasingly difficult as they become viewed more and more as has-been losers who managed to get one lucky punch in above their weight.

But is it true that Al Queda only got "one lucky punch" or is this a form of begging the question? When I read the line it struck me that money and recruits flow from people who probably have a very different world view than most westerners. What is important to them? What would motivate them to sign on to Al Queda or send a check?

It's in that frame of mind that I recalled the Foreign Affairs article by Michael Scott Doran and the commentary on that article. They all seemed to agree that the radicals in Saudi Arabia had been strengthened by the bombings, and that Al Queda had links to these radical forces inside Saudi Arabia, even that the entire phenomenon of Al Queda was born of Saudi Arabia exporting their civil war.

The idea that the Saudi Arabia bombings were important is bolstered by Dan Darling's observation that the bombings were centrally organized and managed from high up in Al Queda's organization:

Both Riyadh bombings were personally ordered by Saif al-Adel, al-Qaeda's top military commander, who is reputed to be based out of Iran with his local cadre of flunkies. Now, al-Qaeda is, as our experts keep telling us, a fairly decentralized network and even more so following the loss of Afghanistan for reasons of operational security. With the exception of major operations like Bali or the Poshipnikov Zavod Dubrovka theater seige, most of the time the in-country network leadership is charged with the plotting of a single attack. At the time, I had assumed that al-Qaeda might have been planning to launch a coup in Saudi Arabia and replace the Clown Prince in favor of a more pliable royal like Nayef or Turki. But if this story is accurate, it means that al-Qaeda already has a pliable government (or half the government, anyway) in place in the Magic Kingdom and that both Riyadh bombings were conducted with the idea of protecting their investment in mind.

Wretchard's thought that the "status of Saudi Arabia is the fundamental issue in the War on Terror" is right on the money. If Al Queda loses in Afghanistan, that's peripheral to the muslim world. Even Iraq is not the main arena. Saudi Arabia is, and Saudi Arabia seems to be where Al Queda is doing its best and we are able to influence things the least.

In the end I can't go along with Steven Den Beste's optimistic construction of "one lucky punch" but I think that he's likely right that Al Queda's defeats are outweighing its victories, just not by as steep a margin as he makes out.

Al Queda is not a conventional foe and their victories are not necessarily going to be obvious. It could be that Prince Nayef is one of their own and Al Queda's big game is to install Nayef over Abdullah when King Fahd dies, all else being misdirection. Under the triple protection of Mecca, Medina, and Saudi Arabia's oil wells, Al Queda would be very hard to root out and they would have a formidable 'base' for further operations to restore the Caliphate and launch a call for Jihad that could no longer be ignored.

Posted by TMLutas at January 2, 2004 11:33 AM