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al Qaeda

Elegant simplicity
Armed with cardboard cutters, faith and little else

August 5, 2004

After the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, much ink was spilled in the American press on the sophistication of their execution. Four planes highjacked on the same day, each by a distinct cell targeting one of the visible symbols of American power surely required months of detailed planning, an impressive feat considering it apparently went unnoticed by Western Intelligence and the arsenal of awesome surveillance technology it employs.

But when the dust settled and the initial hyperbolic punditry deflated, a clearer picture emerged. That of fanatically determined young men armed with cardboard cutters, their faith and little else. All the millions invested in airport security and surveillance technology didn't make an iota of difference. After all you can't x-ray a belief in afterlife.

The success of the 9/11 highjackers, it appeared, was owed to elegant simplicity, albeit a diabolical one. David's slingshot toppling the Goliath, paralyzing the awesome technological and economic system that is North America. For a few days at least in the September of 2001, apocalypse seemed to be indeed at hand, fearsomely near.

In the nearly three years that has followed, that initial fear of the end has to a large degree faded away. I for one always believed that the September 11 attacks were a spectacular one-timer. The basic rule of guerilla warfare dictates that the initial attacks should be followed by immediate after shocks catching the enemy dazed and confused. And yet nothing followed in the aftermath.

The FBI round up of Moslems that ensued in the US has not netted much vis-a-vis al Qaeda, re-enforcing this theory. This lack of follow up to 9/11 attacks speaks to al Qaeda's structure. It is not an organization in the traditional sense of guerilla organizations from the IRA to the FLN (the Algerian National Liberation Front) to the PLO.

Al Qaeda is a movement, a virtual organization if you will, one resembling the concept of Ijtihad in Islam and Taghia in Shiia Islam. The traditional guerilla organization is a pyramid, a wide base of rank and file cells narrowing gradually to the leadership at the top closely controlling the structure ideologically and logistically. Everything flows from top to bottom. Every cell is connected to the one above it and the one below.

The counter insurgency hence has always operated based on the jigsaw puzzle principle. Capture a piece, preferably alive, use brutal torture and meticulous evidence gathering, connect the single piece to the overall picture, move from the bottom and sides to the centre and the top, and eventually identify and decapitate the leadership.

This method has been put to practice in numerous situations from Ireland to Brazil to Iran to Palestine but its most famous and spectacular example took place in the mid-fifties during the Battle of Algiers where during the course of a short period of time the FLN terrorized Algiers and seriously challenged the French rule.

Unable to counter FLN's organized attacks flowing from the protection of dense alleyways of the Kasbah, the French paratroopers were dispatched to the city. In what ensued General Massau the Commander of French paratroopers oversaw a gradual bottom-up dismantling of the FLN structure in Algiers employing extreme violence and policies of collective punishment against the Arab population.

The elusiveness of al Qaeda in the past three years is a direct result of its rejection of pyramid model. When an Imam declares a fatwa (a call to action), he makes his call to all Moslems, anywhere. Those responding to this call will have to do it in their own way, forming cells and procuring the means to carry it out. There is no organizational connection between a cell in say Northern Europe and one in Indonesia, hence capturing either cell members will not endanger the other. Theoretically at least there is no organizational leadership to decapitate.

Although Bin Laden is no doubt a figure of emulation and reverence amongst radical Islamists, his capture or death will not affect the movement in a way that assassination of Yasser Arafat or the Irish guerilla leader Michael Collins in 1916 Ireland would their respective organizations. Destruction of a cell will temporarily diminish al Qaeda's presence until the next cell springs into existence. So long as the call to Jihad remains and the soil is fertile with men and women willing to take up the call the jinni will not be put back into the bottle.

The irony of our time is that al Qaeda has effectively used the internet like a modern day call of muezzin to recruit potential martyrs. Hundreds of sympathetic sites have sprung up on the Net disseminating instructions on forming cells, manufacturing bombs and suitable targets to attack. A good number of al Qaeda sympathetic sites are actually hosted on severs in American cities.

The distributed, decentralized, anonymous architecture of the internet has provided a perfect communication backbone mirroring al Qaeda's own structure. A perfect melding of modern technology and medieval theology.

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By Asghar Massombagi


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