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With the anniversary of the attacks on Washington and New York fast approaching, al-Qaida is under increasing pressure to carry out another major strike against the United States, reports Stratfor, the global intelligence company.
Recent statements by purported al-Qaida representatives have been intended to reassure the group’s members about its capabilities, but unless an actual attack is carried out soon, a crisis of confidence may explode.
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a Kuwaiti who has been described as Osama bin Laden’s spokesman, said in mid-June that bin Laden had been wounded by shrapnel last year during the U.S. attack on the Tora Bora mountain region in Afghanistan, but Abu Ghaith insisted that he still was alive and well. More important, he said that al-Qaida was planning new operations, and that “the few coming days and months will prove to the whole world the truth of what we are saying.”
A month and a half have passed since that statement, and al-Qaida has not attacked. With Sept. 11, 2002, only 43 days away and without a major al-Qaida operation in the past year, the pressure is mounting to strike again.
This pressure is born of al-Qaida’s core mission. It intends to transform and unify the Islamic world under its understanding of Islam, and set the stage for a decisive confrontation between the Islamic world and the West. The Sept. 11 attacks were meant to show that al-Qaida could do this, and according to Abu Ghaith they represented “a great victory that broke the backs of the Americans, the strongest power in the world.”
The foundation of al-Qaida’s strategy is to demonstrate that the United States is vulnerable to attack despite its power and that al-Qaida can survive the inevitable American counterattack. For most of this year, the group has been relieved of the burden of carrying out operations to demonstrate its survival because the U.S. government has warned continually that the question of whether al-Qaida will attack is not if, but when. The American response surprised the network and allowed it to hold off on widely expected attacks.
But in June, al-Qaida felt compelled to assert publicly that its leader was still alive, its organization was fully operational and that new attacks could be expected shortly. Since the Bush administration had not changed its position on al-Qaida’s capabilities, at least publicly, the only explanation for Abu Ghaith’s statement was that it was meant to reassure not just the Islamic world as a whole but members of al-Qaida as well.
Certainly there are growing doubts within the al-Qaida network about its continued ability to function. U.S. intelligence, working with foreign intelligence services, has been penetrating al-Qaida’s networks systematically, announcing some daily arrests, keeping others confidential. Washington cannot be certain how badly it has damaged the group given that it is not fully comfortable with its map of al-Qaida and therefore cannot know what has been missed, but it certainly has made inroads, quite possibly preventing some operations.
The problem for al-Qaida is that the same secrecy and compartmentalization that has hindered U.S. intelligence also makes it difficult for its own members to evaluate the organization’s viability. Knowledge that its operatives have been captured, coupled with opacity about its capabilities, seems to have created a crisis of confidence in al-Qaida that Abu Ghaith’s statement was designed to overcome.
It appears to have succeeded, but this is a success with a time bomb built in. Abu Ghaith bought al-Qaida a few months, but if it does not strike soon, the crisis of confidence will return with a vengeance.
Therefore, we are moving into a period in which the pressure on al-Qaida to perform will grow ever more intense. It will no longer be able to rely on U.S. government statements to reassure its members. At the same time, U.S. intelligence has been aggressively attacking al-Qaida, making it dangerous, or at least difficult, for the group to strike.
Al-Qaida’s capabilities at the moment are unknown. Probably even al-Qaida itself is unsure which of its assets remain secure and which have been compromised. And the luxury of laying back and waiting is running out. If al-Qaida does not re-emerge soon, Abu Ghaith’s statement will be proven false and doubts about the network’s survival will flourish. Al-Qaida historically has been averse to risk, especially since Sept. 11. It is not clear that it can continue this policy.
Al-Qaida never ceases to surprise, both about when it attacks and when it does not. However, it appears that we are entering a period in which the probability of al-Qaida at least attempting to mount a serious operation somewhere in the world is increasing substantially.