Yahya Abu al-LibiGovernment's double message
A few days ago a US drone reportedly killed (among others) Abu Yahya al-Libi, described as Al Qaeda's number two man, thus further weakening an already diminished organization. It had already been suggested as far back as April 2010 by a "national security experts blog," National Journal
, that since (among other events) Iraqi security forces had then recently killed "the top two leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq," Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, Al Qaeda had perhaps reached the "tipping point." It seemed that Osama bin Laden, taken out in a targeted assassination thirteen months ago by the US with the hands-on supervision of President Obama, hadn't been doing very much lately: watching a lot of television. Last year Oxford University Press published a book, The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda
. In it, "Fawaz A. Gerges argues that Al-Qaeda has degenerated into a fractured, marginal body kept alive largely by the self-serving anti-terrorist bureaucracy it helped to spawn." To what extent does the USA's industry of anti-terrorist overkill, beginning with several (hard to say how many) seemingly endless wars post-9/11, simply stimulate and perpetuate a danger that justifies its continued existence? That's a possibility we might take seriously.
It seems western propaganda and US mainstream media are determined to have it both ways: Al Qaeda is diminished, enfeebled: we have achieved great victories over it. But it is dangerous, stealthy, tireless, ever-growing: we must be ceaselessly on our guard against it. And perhaps both are true. But the same question comes up as during Bush's wars and all the post-9/11 reactions: is any of this helping? Are we safer now?
While it's useful motivation to take pride in victories along the way in the form of body counts including the enemy's leadership, it's also true that an invisible enemy is the ideal justification for perpetual war. Al Qaeda works well in this role. It is a shadow organization, in hiding, working sub rosa, and we're at the mercy of sporadic reports as to what it's doing and who's in charge. This is a danger you can define any way you like. How do you monitor its current status? And in consulting reports, whom do you trust? The trouble is that analysts on the right want motivation for perpetual war; on the left a pacifist slant leads threats to be downplayed. Thus, "While al Qaeda's capacity for large-scale attacks has been drastically reduced and the organization seriously weakened, the United States can expect to continue its battle with the terrorist group for many years to come," according to a new Rand Corporation study
. That, for the right is a comfortable position. We're doing a great job, but we won't put ourselves out of business. The war is perpetual, or at least vaguely long-lasting.
The elimination of Yahya Abu al-Libi was touted as a great victory. "'There is no-one who even comes close in terms of replacing the expertise al-Qaeda has just lost,' one US official said," according to CNN
. "The official added that al-Qaeda's leadership 'will be hard-pressed to find any one person who can readily step into [Al-Libi's] shoes.'" But what if he is replaced by two men, or three -- or half a dozen? Suppose Al-Libi left behind more than one pair of shoes?Still Al Qaeda's best recruiter
The error of logic here is the same as I described at the outset after 9/11, when the Bush administration putatively set out to eliminate Bin Laden. If terrorism or anti-American feeling is like a virus, and the earth is like a human body, if you eliminate the poison from one part, it will only spring up in another. And drone attacks are only a little better than attacking all of Afghanistan allegedly to "get" Bin Laden, because he was rumored to be hiding there. Note: "at least six missiles" were fired at the compound where Al-Libi reputedly resided, and the "official" report says "15 militants" were killed. We now know from the recent NY Times article
on Obama's "secret kill list" that any male in the area when a terrorist is killed is defined as a "militant," so read "fifteen young men." The question also is: does taking out a group's leader demoralize its members -- or harden their determination? And what about the local population, whose native sons have died in this attack? Do they feel any safer now? Or does this attack heighten their sympathies for Al Qaeda?
It has seemed all along that Al Qaeda is a very cellular organization, with separate units working independently. Now, blocking specific terrorist attacks on the US or other western countries, which happens all the time and sometimes is reported and sometimes not, is certainly a necessary and useful activity -- the most necessary and useful activity in this whole so often misguided "war on terror." But it's very unlikely that taking out leaders of terrorist groups, particularly when they are as multi-national as Al Qaeda, has any lasting effect in weakening the organization. Jenna Jordan argued this in an op-ed piece
in the NY Times
in October 2011, apropos of the killing of the American-Muslim cleric Anwar Al-Awaki (a morally and constitutionally dubious action that Obama nonetheless reportedly found "easy"). "The doctrine upon which the group is based is not dependent upon leaders, like Bin Laden or Mr. Awlaki, for its reproduction," Jordan wrote. "While Mr. Awlaki’s death was a major tactical victory, research suggests that over time, Al Qaeda will survive this and other recent attacks. Focusing on leaders alone is not enough to undermine it."
Jordan suggested withdrawing ground forces from Afghanistan as an action that would "undermine one of the causes for which the organization has been fighting." Yes: by maintaining those ground forces we created the motivation for Al Qaeda (as some of us have been saying all along). And so now maybe with luck we can remove that motivation by withdrawing them. Maybe. But it's not that easy, really. Lasting damage has been done.
In other words, the US has been the main recruiter for Al Qaeda and remains so. The way things look, it will be a very long time before this changes. And peaceful hearts-and-minds methods, such as Jordan suggests, aren't likely to work to erase this effect. She says the US's providing "critical social services in communities where Al Qaeda and other militants operate could eliminate opportunities for them to gain further local support." That kind of activity works locally, however, but the US is not local. Probably even social services will be seen as foreign intervention. This is the flaw in such thinking -- though it's certainly right to point out the fallacy of believing that killing leaders will lastingly weaken Al Qaeda.
The greatest recruiting program of all for terrorism is not any one activity but simply the US government's general policy, and ongoing status, of global dominance. But minding its own business has never seemed to be "on the table" as an American option -- anywhere. Recent news, and reports on Obama's own strongly pursued policies, the "Kill List" among others, suggest that "the self-serving anti-terrorist bureaucracy [Al Qaeda] helped to spawn" is, if anything, stronger than ever.
Glenn Greenwald presented somewhat this argument a week later on Salon.com
with the title "Al Qaeda's Best Friend."