America’s view of jihadi terrorists leans far too heavily on fallacious characterizations by politicians, television pundits and Hollywood. As is everything in world affairs, terrorism as a whole, and terrorism by Islamic holy warriors in particular, is a complex matter vulnerable to over-simplification.
For example, the argument has been put forward that the conflict in Iraq involves terrorists who otherwise would be concentrating on targets in the United States and Western Europe. There is no operational basis for this theory. To proceed effectively on a covert mission aimed at destruction of high value targets in advanced societies requires a totally different degree of sophistication and talent from the paramilitary capability of the various insurgent elements in Iraq.
One should never confuse the internecine conflict in Iraq as solely involving dedicated Islamic extremists. In terms of numbers and organization, the diehard secular Sunni remnants of Saddam Hussein’s political/military structure and the Iranian-supported Shia of Muktada al Sadr’s politically parochial militia far and away exceed the operational structure and strength of the jihadi Al Qaeda in Iraq.
The primarily Sunni Al Qaeda has the operational interest and assets that directly threaten Western society. Among these committed terrorists, those fighting in Iraq do not generally qualify for Al Qaeda’s international operations in the U.S. or Europe. The “street fighters” of that organization are in Iraq, not their sophisticated covert operators.
To put it simply, the agents of Al Qaeda capable of attacking European or American targets must be able to “pass” in those communities. They must have both the vocational and language skills that allow them a certain legitimacy within these foreign societies. While this is not necessarily a small pool of candidates, it is not large, and it does tend to restrict potential recruits to a particular socio-economic sector of the Islamic world.
It is important, however, to remember that the support structure for Al Qaeda operations personnel within the U.S. or Europe need not be restricted to individuals whose backgrounds duplicate that of the action agents. In fact, for security purposes it obviously is worthwhile to recruit support agents from diverse backgrounds. This could include both male and female non-Arab indigenous personnel.
Another error often made is to perceive terrorists’ willingness to sacrifice their lives for jihad (variously translated as holy war, struggle or purpose) as somehow mentally unbalanced. While this may be true in some cases, Islamic culture is not alone in cultivating such actions. Many religions and their associated cultures have been responsible for individuals sacrificing their lives in an effort to take the lives of their enemies.
A serious flaw in counter-terrorist thinking has been the expectation that the acquisition of substantial amounts of exotic material, from explosives to chemicals, would be necessary for successful terrorist operations. This is just not true. The 9/11 terrorists actually used a simple device: Take over an existing benign mechanism and turn it into a massive lethal weapon. Without providing terrorism with another “how to” primer, it is not difficult to imagine many other easily available means to achieve similar results. It is just not that hard to kill large numbers of people, as any special operations officer can attest.
There is no simple key to countering the terrorism of radical Islam, but the ability to utilize ground level intelligence gained from local law enforcement in combination with the international resources of federal agencies is clearly the best defense. There is one factor, however, which has so far been an aid, at least in the American case. Al Qaeda appears to be unwilling to fail.
Every sign indicates that one of the tenets of Al Qaeda operations is careful, patient planning and preparation. A certain amount of this exists in all covert operations, but Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri have personified a nearly compulsive pre-operational dedication to perfection. These are not wild-eyed bomb throwers, and they have always sought — albeit not always successfully — to instill the same commitment in their subordinates.
Al Qaeda considers an obvious failure to be tantamount to a major success by their hated target. Such a failure is seen as inhibiting the maintenance of Al Qaeda’s public support in such a fashion as to undercut their entire war effort. Operational support and financing would be in danger of withering away and soon competitive groups would crowd out the original holy warriors.
The result has been years of preparation rather than even more years of recovery. Make no mistake, though; they eventually will attack again. They must do so to remain credible.