June 14, 2007 | FrontPage Magazine

Symposium: Al Qaeda: What Next?

American intelligence has discerned that al Qaeda is rebuilding in Pakistan’s tribal areas and that a new generation of leaders has emerged under Osama bin Laden.


This ominous development raises several pertinent questions. Among them: what do we really know about al Qaeda? We had very little knowledge of the terrorist organization before 9/11; how much has our understanding of al Qaeda really changed since 9-11? What have we learned since? And how has what we learned changed our understanding of and dealing with the enemy?


FP: Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, Thomas Jocelyn and Andy McCarthy, welcome to Frontpage Symposium.


Thomas Jocelyn, let’s begin with you. What do you think are some of the key elements that need emphasis to serve as a foundation for a discussion on diagnosing al Qaeda?


Jocelyn: Thanks, Jamie. With respect to diagnosing al Qaeda, I think there are three key observations:

(1) Prior to 9-11, the West, and the U.S. in particular, understood very little about al Qaeda. Our intelligence agencies simply did not know much about how al Qaeda was structured, financed, or plotted attacks. Out of this ignorance many misunderstandings about our terrorist enemies took root.

(2) After 9-11, America’s civilian intelligence agencies and military scrambled to understand an enemy that caught them sleeping. To their credit, and with the help of key allies around the globe, al Qaeda’s network was substantially degraded. A majority of al Qaeda’s top operatives at the time of 9-11 have been killed or captured. Despite numerous tactical successes, however, many of the misconceptions that were born prior to 9-11 have lived on.

(3) In the last three years, it has become more and more clear that al Qaeda is regrouping. New leaders have emerged and the terror network is evolving in ways we do not yet fully comprehend. Al Qaeda’s new leaders, as well as the leaders that survived the post 9-11 crackdown, have regrouped in northern Pakistan and Iran. Other al Qaeda affiliates fight on in Iraq and select hotspots around the globe. Throughout all of this, our understanding of the enemy has been clouded by mistaken impressions from the past. And it makes the fight ahead much more difficult.

Let me offer a few examples of what I mean.

During the early to mid 1990’s, a prominent group of officials inside the American intelligence community viewed our terrorist enemies as merely an “ad hoc” collection of extremists who just happened to come together to attack targets around the globe. Not all of our analysts viewed the enemy this way. But the idea that al Qaeda’s terrorists were not part of an organized terrorist network became fairly commonplace.

Influential analysts at the CIA, in particular, consistently misdiagnosed the enemy. In 1993, terrorists executed the first attack against the World Trade Center and were plotting a series of follow-on attacks against landmarks in the NYC area. Despite the fact that the terrorists involved had extensive ties to foreign Islamic terrorist groups, particularly Egypt’s Islamic Group and other allies of al Qaeda who were then operating out of Sudan, the CIA dismissed the notion that we faced an organized terrorist network. As late as 1998, as Rohan Gunaratna points out in his seminal book Inside al Qaeda, CIA analysts were arguing that the 1993 plotters “did not belong to a single cohesive organization, but rather were part of a loose grouping of politically committed Muslims living in the New York City area.” The CIA could not have been more wrong. (For an excellent write-up on the 1993 terror plots and the terrorists’ ties to the global terror network then centered in Sudan, see Andrew McCarthy’s 1998 Weekly Standard piece “The Sudan Connection,” which is reproduced here.)

But the CIA’s mistaken paradigm for understanding al Qaeda’s terrorist network has, amazingly, lived on. Immediately following 9-11 no one would really argue that our terrorist enemies were only an “ad hoc” group of hijackers. It was clear that a sophisticated and well-trained network of evildoers had forged a professional terrorist network. But as more time passed, the old paradigm made a comeback. After the March 11, 2004 train bombings in Madrid and the July 7, 2005 bombings in London, for example, many Western analysts were quick to conclude that the perpetrators were merely inspired by al Qaeda’s ideology and did not really belong to an organized network of terrorists. (See here and here, for example.) Not all of Europe’s investigators fell into this trap. For example, some of Spain’s judicial investigators did exemplary work in tying the 3-11 bombings to al Qaeda. But they were the exception.

It has become only more and more clear that the terrorists responsible for the 3-11 and 7-7 bombings were directly affiliated with the global, organized network of terrorists, which includes al Qaeda. The evidence is simply overwhelming. But throughout much of the investigations into these plots, many investigators simply assumed that the attacks weren’t really the work of al Qaeda or its allies. Therefore, once again, Western intelligence services initially misdiagnosed the source of major terrorist attacks.

All of this, of course, has made diagnosing al Qaeda more difficult. More than five years after 9-11 many investigators still do not fully understand the hallmarks of al Qaeda’s terrorism or the basics of how the organization operates. As the terrorist organization’s structure continues to evolve, this problem will only become greater. There are many other myths from the past that have lived on, but the inability to recognize and deal with the basics of al Qaeda’s terror remains a fundamental problem.

Gunaratna: Al Qaeda is a jihad organization with a global reach. In keeping its original mandate, its principal aim was to inspire and incite Islamic movements and the Muslim masses worldwide to attack those who threaten Islam and Muslims. In defence of Islam and its adherents, al Qaeda conducts attacks on iconic targets of the US, its allies and friends to inspire and instigate a perpetual campaign. Although al Qaeda does not enjoy widespread support among the Muslim masses worldwide, it seeks to exploit the anger, suffering and the resentment of Muslims against the United States. America’s lack of understanding of the Muslim world – for instance its invasion of Iraq – has given a new lease of life to terrorism and extremism. Considering the support for the global jihad movement in Asia, Africa, Middle East, and elsewhere, the campaign has been a partial success. While al Qaeda conducted one major attack every year prior to 9/11, al Qaeda and its associated groups conducted one attack every three months after 9/11. Many of these groups today seek to emulate al Qaeda tactics, and more importantly believe in the global jihad. The most hunted terrorist group in history, has spawned several similar groups.


Al Qaeda inherited a global infrastructure from the anti-Soviet multinational Afghan mujahidin. Its real strength is not al Qaeda membership per se but its overarching highly appealing ideology. Instead of building support for al Qaeda the group, it seeks to reinvigorate the global jihad movement. In addition to training its own members – 4,000 (October 2001 estimate, Western intelligence community), al Qaeda, Taliban and other groups trained 20,000 members in its camps in Afghanistan from 1989 to 2001. Most of the mujahidin that fought against the Soviets disagree with al Qaeda and its associated groups.


Today, al Qaeda’s real power is the disparate groups it had trained, financed, armed and most importantly ideologized. The al Qaeda network (al Qaeda group + its associated groups) and ideologically affiliated cells comprise the al Qaeda movement. Since al Qaeda attacked America’s most iconic landmarks, the threat posed by al Qaeda has been surpassed by the emergence of a global jihad movement, consisting of al Qaeda and other groups that advocate global jihad.


McCarthy:  I agree that al Qaeda’s real strength is its ideology — its ideological self-confidence, specifically — and that it has benefited substantially from American miscalculations about its nature.


It may indeed be true that al Qaeda does not enjoy widespread support among Muslims worldwide in the sense of large percentages wanting to join the active ranks of the jihad organization.  But (a) even the small percentage of willing jihadists constitutes a considerable, vibrant threat, and (b) a far larger percentage of Muslims supports al Qaeda’s ideology and aims, if not its methods.


The fundamentalist ideology is horrific.  It is anti-freedom, anti-equality, savage, misogynistic, etc.  It is, however, coherent.  Unlike those struggling to reform Islam, the jihadists are quite willing to accept the more troublesome aspects of Islamic doctrine as literally true and of continuing application — they reject as untenable the reformist notion that doctrinal commands to violence, intolerance and domination should be understood as confined to their long ago time and place.  Jihadists are supremely confident that theirs is the authentic Islam and they believe that they are winning.  Of course they are taking substantial losses, but they believe they are outlasting us because they are more committed to their goals and willing to pursue them ruthlessly.  Only six years after 9/11, they see America retreating (as their top leaders always assured subordinates America would do) and they — along with a reinvigorated Taliban — are on the rise again, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  This self-confident sense of purpose and progress is very enticing.  There are millions in the Muslim world who admire al Qaeda even if they don’t want to join al Qaeda.  And this makes the movement stronger and more difficult for progressive alternatives to compete with.


For our part, we have shunned serious analysis of Islamic ideology, which is the engine of radical Islam.  This contributes to the phenomenon that both Tom and Rohan have underlined, albeit in different ways:  our failure to develop a good grasp of either al Qaeda or the Islamic world in general.  Discussing ideology — not just rejecting terrorism but highlighting the specific beliefs of jihadists which are antithetical to Western democracy — is the only practical way to marginalize jihadists and distinguish the true moderate reformers from the pretend-moderates who are actually more help to our enemies than to us.  But we’ve largely defaulted from that challenge.  This helps our enemies operationally as well as increasing their prestige in the eyes of many Muslims, a tragic irony because al Qaeda has always brutalized Muslims with abandon — what they are doing now in Iraq is no different from what they did in Kenya, Tanzania and other places where their strikes have killed many more Muslims than Americans.  (There are hopeful signs of change in some of Iraq’s Sunni areas, where indigenous Muslims, tired of being victimized, are beginning to fight al Qaeda.)  From an intelligence standpoint, we’ve missed how cohesive and adaptable al Qaeda is.  Most of all, we’ve missed how willing it is to make alliances with Shiite and secular groups and regimes for what it sees as the greater good of fighting the U.S. and the West.


FP: Thomas Jocelyn, a rejoinder to the comments of our colleagues? And what are your thoughts on Tenet’s book and his info/angle on Al Qaeda?

Jocelyn: I certainly agree that ideology is a fundamental component of this global struggle. And Rohan and Andy are right to say that America has lacked an understanding of the Muslim world. (I would add that this ignorance encompasses both sides of the political aisle and it is also compounded by the Muslim world’s own ignorance of the West.) I would agree, too, that America has lacked a cohesive strategy for combating the spread of a global jihadist ideology. It is a mistake, however, to blame the spread of this ideology mainly on America’s policies or actions as Rohan (for whom I have great respect) seems to do when he writes that America’s ignorance of the Middle East and the Iraq war have “given a new lease of life to terrorism and extremism.”

In reality, whether one is for or against the Iraq War, the threat of Islamic terrorism and extremism had clearly metastasized around the globe long before March 2003. Long before the Iraq war, bin Laden and other jihadist ideologues were always able to find a pretext for their war against the West. Even in cases where America explicitly intervenes on behalf of Muslims, bin Laden and his ilk have managed to twist events to justify a call to arms. From America’s humanitarian intervention in Somalia in the early 1990’s to her siding with Muslim forces in Bosnia, bin Laden has always interpreted events as part of some nefarious plot against Islamic civilization. Even though his explanations make no rational sense, they have found an eager audience in the Muslim world. Why? This is a complicated question with many facets, but I will focus on one very important, and often overlooked, explanation.

We often forget that anti-American, anti-Western propaganda is disseminated daily by Middle Eastern regimes (e.g. just read any major Saudi Arabian daily newspaper). This propaganda still has a large influence on the minds of Muslims. This is evidenced, for example, by opinion polls that show a significant portion of the Muslim population believes that 9/11 was orchestrated by Israel’s Mossad and the CIA as part of some grand deception to justify invading Muslim lands. This spin on 9/11 has repeatedly been a front-page story in the Middle East. (Unfortunately, even some here in the U.S. have adopted this nonsense. But those that “think” this way in our society are generally recognized as a fringe element, whereas in the Middle East this is mainstream opinion.) It is within this propagandized framework that many Muslims interpret events (e.g. the Iraq war, Somalia, Bosnia, etc.), as part of some grand conspiracy against them.

For decades, Middle Eastern regimes have consistently sought to deflect attention from their own problems by blaming everything on America, the West, and Israel. In so doing, they have cultivated a fertile breeding ground for al Qaeda’s ideology and other extreme versions of Islam to take root. After all, from the Muslim point of view: if America, the West, and “the Zionists” are all colluding to suppress Muslims, then it is somewhat natural to think that a radical solution is necessary to counter this perceived assault on Islamic civilization. And if feckless Arab regimes will not stand up to this alliance of “crusaders and Zionists,” then the disaffected population will look for someone that will. Osama bin Laden and his comrades have successfully filled this perceived void. Al Qaeda’s xenophobic Wahhabism and other currents of pan-Islamism have gained many adherents precisely because it promises to vanquish the enemy in ways other dominant thought-systems (e.g. pan-Arabism) of the Middle East have failed. Even though relatively few Muslims will commit themselves all the way to bin Laden’s cause, many more are sympathetic to his goals. Thus, today we confront the related problems of terrorism and extremism.

It is true, as Rohan notes, that bin Laden was able to spread the al Qaeda virus around the world by winning recruits to his ideology and inspiring like-minded groups to carry the banner of jihad. But ideology is not the only thing holding al Qaeda and its associates together. Beginning in the early 1990’s, bin Laden sought to transform his Afghani insurgency group into a terrorist empire. As part of this transformation, bin Laden sought and received support from various actors, some of whom did not whole-heartedly share his ideology at all.

Jamie, you asked about George Tenet’s new book and what it reveals about al Qaeda. I think his book underscores a point that Andy, myself and a few others have consistently made. Bin Laden and al Qaeda are willing to work with diverse parties to achieve their goals. Tenet’s book makes it clear, for example, that the CIA did find evidence that al Qaeda and Saddam’s Iraq had a relationship worthy of concern. Tenet says that while the CIA could find no evidence of Iraq’s complicity in 9/11, the Agency did find at least three areas to be worried about: contacts, training, and safe haven. The evidence that Tenet points to is just a small sample of that which is readily available.

I know that Rohan does not agree that Iraq had any real relationship with al Qaeda. But Rohan’s work (including his “Inside Al Qaeda”) has highlighted the ties of another state sponsor of terrorism, Iran, to al Qaeda. Although Shiite, the Iranians have consistently delivered their support for Sunni al Qaeda against their common enemies. There has been a longstanding relationship between senior al Qaeda officials like Ayman al Zawahiri and Saif al Adel and the Iranian regime. Today, Iran continues to harbor senior al Qaeda leaders and Tenet’s new book revealed that from Iranian soil they have continued to pursue nuclear weapons.

The bottom line is that al Qaeda is not dead. The organization continues to operate from its sanctuaries in northern Pakistan and Iran and continues to play a leading role in organizing major terrorist attacks. As Andy notes, al Qaeda has been willing to work with secular and Shiite allies to further its cause. And all of this is taking place within the context of the global spread of an ideology that is antithetical to Western and American values.

Gunaratna:  There is agreement that the real threat is the seductive ideology of Al Qaeda and an international failure to fight it. In a book I coauthored with Michael Chandler recently, I argued that the West in general has failed to understand the ideology of the global jihad movement. Our kinetic and lethal strategies of catch, kill and disruption has not really helped to reduce the strategic threat.

The challenge in the next five years is how can we prevent the global wave of radicalization. What are the strategies and methods – especially the practical steps available?

Jocelyn makes a very important point that the threat of Islamist terrorism and extremism had clearly “metastasized around the globe long before March 2003.” I agree. We have tried to quantify the escalation in the global threat of terrorism after March 2003. If either McCarthy or Jocelyn could compare the escalation before and after March 2003, it would provide insight to our readers.

McCarthy: I don’t know that I could quantify global escalation, but I do think history shows there are always spikes of radicalization around major events—both terrorist attacks and the responses to them.  For that reason, I’ve always conceded the point that Rohan and others make about how the invasion of Iraq spurred terrorist recruitment.

Where I part company with them is that I don’t think such predictable escalation is a good reason not to act.  Reacting weakly or not at all also increases terrorist membership since it makes the terror organization look stronger and thus more enticing; the escalation that results from reacting forcefully is an unavoidable and acceptable cost—any escalation attributable solely to the response is marginal (as Tom points out, there are other causes of escalation), and if you are efficiently killing and capturing terrorists, particularly their leadership, it means that the terror organizations function less efficiently even if their numbers have been inflated somewhat.

On a local scale, we saw this in New York City with Sayyid Nosair’s killing of Rabbi Meir Kahane and the subsequent lengthy murder trial.  This was a galvanizing event for Muslims in the New York/New Jersey area, many of whom were drawn for the first time to the radical cause.  Globally, the same phenomenon was seen, of course, in Afghanistan, Bosnia and, now, Iraq.  (My sense is that the Palestinian cause—unless there is open warfare like last summer—has always been more of a talking point than a catalyzing cause for al Qaeda.)  Big campaigns draw attention and compel movements to organize and make a concerted effort to recruit.

Terrorist attacks are themselves a big escalation factor, too.  Nosair, for example, was a nobody until he killed Kahane; the murder made him a star, and he was thereafter able to recruit and influence other Muslims.  There were reports a couple of years ago that the 1993 World Trade Center bombers were able to send jihadist communications out of jail and may even have influenced Spanish radicals.  And, indeed, we’ve just learned in the last few days that the so-called Fort Dix Six who were planning an attack against a U.S. army base in New Jersey were inspired by the 9/11 hijackers and bin Laden—successful attacks and attackers are major recruitment tools.  Look at these opinion polls that tell us bin Laden and Hezbollah’s Nasrallah are consistently rated as very popular in the Muslim world.

Speaking of opinion polls, I have to take issue with one small aspect of Tom’s otherwise spot-on comments.  I wish it were so that the crazy conspiracy theories in the U.S. about 9/11 were relegated to a fringe element.  Have you gents seen the Rasmussen poll that came out this week?  It indicates that one in five likely voters (i.e., 22 percent) believes President Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance.  Among Democrats, fully 61 percent believe he either knew in advance (35 percent) or may have known in advance (i.e., the 26 percent who said they were not sure).  That is just staggering, and tremendously disheartening.

As for a going-forward strategy, I harp on this all the time:  we cannot continue to treat ideology as if it were a third-rail that we can’t talk about for fear of giving offense.  We should be talking about jihadism not in terms of ethnicity or religion but in the rhetoric of rights.  Jihadists believe there is no free will, that people do not have the right to legislate for themselves regardless of what any religious doctrine says, that homosexuals and apostates should be killed, that non-Muslims are inferior to Muslims, that men are inferior to women, etc.  These beliefs should be anathema to people who truly care about human rights.  We need to talk about them so we can get a better sense of who really holds them and so we can marginalize them.  Non-Muslims cannot reform Islam, but I believe we could help authentic moderates a lot by highlighting what needs to be reformed.

If that upsets some Muslims, good; nothing ever changes unless people are spurred to change it.  Freedom of religion means freedom of conscience, not freedom from scrutiny.  All religious traditions have to abide some scrutiny if their belief systems are having consequences for other people.  New recruits are going to continue to be drawn to what we all agree here is an enticing ideology until we do a better job of making the ideology less enticing.  You can’t do that if you’re unwilling to talk about it.  It would also take the wind out of the “Islamaphobia” libel if we educate people about the specific things that should make them phobic.

Jocelyn: Like Andy, I don’t think I can quantify the global “escalation” of terrorism since March 2003. But Rohan is certainly right to be worried about the spill-over effects of the Iraq war, that is, jihadists perfecting their craft in Iraq and then applying it elsewhere around the globe. There are also plenty of reasons to worry about the consequences of the alliance between former Baathists and jihadists that fuels al Qaeda in Iraq today as well. But we should remember that Iraq was far from being a terrorist-free state prior to March 2003. There is solid evidence that thousands of terrorists of all stripes, including those affiliated with al Qaeda, passed through Saddam’s training camps from the late 1990’s onward. Had the Iraq war not been undertaken, these camps would most likely still be operational to this day. And these Iraqi-trained terrorists would still be practicing their trade around the world – just as terrorists trained by Saddam’s regime had done for decades. Unfortunately, this evidence is frequently ignored when trying to assess the impact of the war in Iraq on the global “war on terror.”

As for “escalation,” there are a number of other factors we should consider, including the prominent roles that Iran – the premier state sponsor of terrorism – and Syria, Tehran’s long-time ally, have played in fueling this war. Both nations have long used terrorist proxies against their foes, and the situation is no different today. A stream of terrorists has used Syrian soil as a staging ground for their entrance into Iraq. And senior al Qaeda operatives continue to operate freely from Iranian soil. Attacks in Morocco, Tunisia, Riyadh and elsewhere have all been traced back to the senior al Qaeda terrorists living in Iran. The Iranian regime has provided vital assistance to the al Qaeda operatives operating in Iraq as well. We know, for example, that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi reconstituted his network while operating out of Iranian safe houses in late 2001 – following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. The Iranians offered their helping hand to al-Zarqawi despite the fact that he was rabidly anti-Shiite. As long as he was working against the Americans, however, they didn’t care. Their mutual animosity for us was enough to drive them together. Once in Iraq, al-Zarqawi’s forces continued to receive assistance from Iran, including IED’s and other weapons such as those that turned up in Fallujah and elsewhere.

Even after al-Zarqawi’s demise, the Iranians have continued to support terrorists – Sunni and Shiite alike – in Iraq. Earlier this year, an intelligence official told The New York Sun that documents captured in Iraq showed “that Iran is working closely with both the Shiite militias and Sunni Jihadist groups,” including al Qaeda in Iraq. And in recent weeks, American forces captured a “liaison to al-Qaeda in Iraq senior leaders, who assists in the movement of information and documents from al-Qaeda in Iraq leadership in Baghdad to al-Qaeda senior leaders in Iran.” Iran is playing a deadly game in Iraq by supporting any terrorist force that wants its assistance in defeating America.

Iran’s strategy in Iraq is consistent with its broader goal of escalating the terrorists’ war against America and her allies on all fronts. Thus, Iran is even supplying arms to its long-time enemy in Afghanistan, the Sunni Taliban. This is not surprising since the Iranian mullahs helped Taliban leaders (as well as senior al Qaeda agents) escape approaching American forces in October 2001. It is not just in Iraq and Afghanistan that Iran is upping the ante. The United Nations has detected Iran’s hand in the violence wrought by al Qaeda’s allies in Somalia. And, of course, Iran and Syria continue to wage their decades-long terrorist proxy war against American allies in Lebanon.

In addition to the evidence cited above, there are numerous other examples of Iran waging a terrorist proxy war around the globe by supporting Sunni and Shiite terrorists alike. There is no doubt that when it comes to “escalation” we should first look to the regime in Tehran as the main problem.

In sum, we should not look at the world purely through the lens of American policies or inadequacies. Our foes exploit the reality on the ground in pursuit of their own interests. The witches’ brew of terror in Iraq today, for example, has many authors. Unfortunately, much of the focus today is not on our enemies – who they are, why and how they work together to accomplish mutual goals. Instead, many are busy blaming our own leaders for the persistence of this war. As Andy points out, a disturbing portion of American society even thinks the president had prior knowledge of 9/11. (Fortunately, this belief is not supposedly serious front-page news here in the U.S. as it is throughout the Middle East.)

There is no doubt that America has made many mistakes in fighting this global war, but the myopic focus on our own faults – some imagined, some real – clouds our vision. It makes diagnosing al Qaeda all the more difficult. Going on six years after 9/11 there is still widespread ignorance concerning our terrorist enemies.

Gunaratna: Since 9/11, the terrorist threat posed by Al Qaeda has mutated significantly. The threat of terrorism directed by Al Qaeda has now been surpassed by the threat of homegrown terrorism. Today, homegrown terrorists present the biggest security challenge to Western law enforcement and to security and intelligence services. As much as 70-80 per cent of Western domestic counter terrorism resources are now dedicated to monitoring, tracking and targeting homegrown jihadists. Homegrown terrorism is a new paradigm that has emerged after the earlier wave of centralised organisation structures like the Al Qaeda and other transnational terrorist groups.

The rigorous efforts of global counter-terrorism initiatives and the cooperation between various state-level and intergovernmental agencies since 9-11 had resulted in the systematic decimation of the organisations and networks of the major terrorist groups. The intentions and capabilities of the groups have transmuted into decentralised and devolved entities of homegrown jihadists. As opposed to international terrorists, homegrown jihadists are citizens of Western countries. They are convert or cradle Muslims. As opposed to mainstream Muslims, homegrown jihadists are driven by the ideology of global jihad. It is a brief system constructed in the last decade.

The globalised world of the West with its material-centric norms has no emotional and dogmatic equivalent to the young host society Islamists who are amidst of an ethnic identity crisis or a racial or religious contention. The cognitive vacuum of the young Islamist is thus vulnerable to the messianic ideas of jihad and the epithets that encourage ‘martyrdom’ for the false promise of a heavenly inheritance. The promise is lucrative to the alienated young Islamic individual since the material milieu around him is deceptive and he is made to be convinced that the only hope is going to be the cyberspace emotive idea of being a devout Muslim in an irreligious world.

Contemporary evolving counterterrorism initiatives do not effectively deal with the uninterrupted surge of the cyber-based jihadi inspirational feeds that subtly entice the vulnerable and misguided mind to acts of predatory violence. The implications of this trend include:

1. The physical counter terrorism measures have secured the filtration of foreign jihadists into the territorial domain of the state, but the recourse of the global jihadi discourse is to use the internet-the platform of social and economic globalisation to be the basis for remote controlling the rank and file of the faithful in the ‘host’ societies;

2. The Internet cannot be policed effectively and policing measures have always produced even more countermeasures and subtle, devious means to neutralise it;

3. The fermentation of the local home grown Islamic faithful in the discourse of jihadism is perhaps the best fifth column tactic that the global jihad has adopted to the rigours of the physical counterterrorism measures.

As the JFK plot revealed, the nature of the threat has changed. Homegrown terrorism and extremism is the dominant threat. It is an enduring threat that will persist. Especially for migrant and diaspora hosting countries – US, Canada, UK, EU, Australia and New Zealand – homegrown jihadism has emerged as the greatest security challenge.

McCarthy: I hear a lot of what Rohan is saying, but I can’t agree with all of it.  The ideology of the global jihad is not a new phenomenon.  Jihad is a military obligation of traditional Islam.  From an historical perspective, what is fairly new (and to be encouraged) is a revisionism of the jihad concept.  But after all, there is today what we call an “Islamic world” precisely because early Muslims had global, hegemonic ambitions and conquered much of the known world.  The problem is in the ideology and always has been.  The radical ideology is a literalist interpretation of Islamic scripture.  We can agree that it is rejected (or, at least, ignored) by most Muslims, but its designs, if not its methods, are accepted by millions.


What is new is the billions in mostly Saudi money which backs its proselytism, compounded by Iran’s revolutionary regime, which promotes the Shiite extremist vision.  But I don’t think there is anything new about the belief system.  And I am skeptical of claims about “mainstream Muslims”– I think there’s a lot of wishful thinking in that term, especially when we see rampant anti-Semitism, broad support for the tactic of suicide terrorism to combat “occupation,” widespread admiration of Hezbollah, and, again, these opinion polls which continue to show leading terrorists and Islamist figures very popular in the Muslim world.


Finally, I agree with much of what Rohan says about the mutation of al Qaeda, but I think, if it’s possible, he actually understates the problem.  He could not be more right about the Internet and the spread of homegrown terrorism and extremism.  Much of that radicalism, though, is imported rather than homegrown.  Obviously, the imported radicals are contributing mightily to the growing homegrown threat, but in terms of capabilities, it still matters a lot whether up-and-coming jihadists have had training, and that is something that still happens in al Qaeda’s traditional strongholds (although, to be sure, there is a growing prevalence of it in the diaspora countries).


On that last point, what I dread is not so much the evolution Rohan describes, which is frightening enough, but that we may be headed toward the worst of both worlds.  That is, al Qaeda and the Taliban are resurgent in Afghanistan and Pakistan; Qaeda is fighting to maintain spreres of influence in Iraq and there is, most regrettably, a growing chance that the U.S. will pull out, allowing them to consolidate.  The jury is very much out on whether they’ve really been pushed out of Somalia.  Qaeda leaders are harbored in Iran, and the network very active in the Maghreb and much of Asia.  What I fear is a double platform for terror:  Where al Qaeda has evolved to be more effective as an atomized network in which homegrown local cells are more or less independent, but under circumstances where the network is also claiming, or reclaiming, safe havens of the type it had in the 1990’s, allowing its hierarchy to complement increasingly capable local branches with more effective command and control.


FP: Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, Thomas Jocelyn and Andy McCarthy, thank you for joining Frontpage Symposium.

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