The War on Terror Spectator

Camp Jihad

A decade of war has not eliminated Afghanistan's terrorist training camps.

By 3.29.12

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One item stood out for me in the coverage of last week's killing spree that left seven dead in France. That was how the late gunman, Mohamed Merah of Toulouse, was alleged to have traveled to Afghanistan in 2011.

The motive for the pilgrimage of Mr. Merah has been disputed, but why else would a French citizen of Algerian descent and jihadist ambitions visit the "Graveyard of Empires"? The beaches?

From 1996 -- when the Taliban rose to power -- to 2001, Afghanistan was the hub of terrorist training. At Camp bin Laden, wannabe martyrs were instructed in terrorism techniques, after which they received their marching orders. The U.S.-led invasion was supposed to end all that. Training camps run by al Qaeda or affiliated groups, however, have returned to Afghanistan.

Despite the presence of U.S. troops and drone attacks, training camps remain commonplace in the Hindu Kush region that bestrides Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. And it has been that way since the U.S. shifted its concentration from Afghanistan to Iraq.

In 2007, while the world's attention was focused on the sectarian violence in Iraq, a U.S. intelligence report indicated that al Qaeda had regrouped along the Afghan-Pakistan border and was in a stronger position than it had been before the 9/11 attacks. At the same time, the London Telegraph was reporting that "estimates for the total number of extremists who have received weapons training and religious instruction at al Qaeda camps, mostly in Afghanistan, ranged from 20,000 to 70,000."

Now, we figured terrorist camps were going concerns in Pakistan's tribal areas (Russian intelligence from 2010 put the number of camps there at 40), especially given the Pakistan army's lackluster attempts to crush the jihadists. And this was recently confirmed by, among others, Pakistani journalist Irfan Husain:

From there, it's easy to travel to similar training camps in Afghanistan -- the border is porous. The training men receive in Afghanistan is very similar.

But the persistence of terrorist-training camps in U.S.-occupied Afghanistan raises important questions about the effectiveness of America's decade-long mission there. If a major US goal was to eradicate the camps so that terrorists could never again use Afghanistan as a base for future attacks, the U.S. seems to have failed at that mission. And it seems unlikely that another decade of occupation would produce better results.

AND HERE COMES THE IRONY. While NATO countries send troops to Afghanistan to fight al Qaeda and the Taliban, these same countries are exporting a significant number of jihadists -- like the Toulouse gunman -- to the Afghan-Pakistan border for terrorist training. "So many people arrive every month that there are problems finding places for them to stay," a suspected al Qaeda member recently told German investigators.

Some European leaders would like to make it a crime to train in terrorist camps, or simply to view jihadist websites. That would certainly keep their intelligence services busy. It is estimated that more than 400,000 journeys are made each year between Britain and Pakistan. Some visit for religious education, but then get sucked into jihadism. It is the same story in Germany. A year ago, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported that "each month, an average of five Islamists leave [Germany] for terrorist training camps in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area.… Never before have as many volunteers from Germany attended terrorist training camps as in the last two years.… In the last decade, at least 220 people from Germany have completed terrorist training, with about half returning to Germany."

Many of these training camp directors boast networks of financial supporters back in the West. European Muslims, however, make up just a small portion of trainees. Information from the charge sheet against David Coleman Headley, the U.S. jihadi indicted for plotting attacks in Denmark, suggests that as recently as 2009, north Waziristan was bustling with Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Russians, Bosnians, and Arabs, all there to support the "holy war."

America and its allies had two goals going into Afghanistan. Kill Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, and make sure that country never again became a haven for terrorists. The U.S. has accomplished the first goal. The second, sorry to say, was never going to happen.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.