Friday, November 21, 2003

The suicide bomb attacks on the British consulate and HSBC in Istanbul brought out the usual official reassurances. We’re fighting evil, says Tony, and we won’t stop until it’s utterly defeated. Some information would be helpful at this point. Step forward the Los Angeles Times (free subscription):

This diaspora of holy warriors drives a new approach that contrasts with the Sept. 11 hijackings in the United States or the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Those attacks took years of planning, with videos of potential targets brought to the group's leaders in Afghanistan for study. Such plots were executed by terrorists groomed in the camps and directed to their targets — via phone, e-mail and messenger — by network masterminds.

Al Qaeda has always been relatively decentralized and unstructured. But today it moves faster, inciting attacks that require less time, expertise or high-level supervision, said Matthew Levitt, a former FBI analyst and terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"It was always a network of networks whose inner core would wait patiently for three to five years to carry out spectacular attacks," Levitt said. "What's different today is that it's not clear they can conduct attacks with that kind of command and control. So to maintain relevancy, they gave the go-ahead: Do what you can, where you can, when you can. And they are targeting softer targets more frequently."

The very name Al Qaeda, some experts say, has become shorthand for a larger jihad fed by the Sept. 11 attacks, the Iraq war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It's been said that Al-Qaeda is less of an organization and more of a franchise. That seems to fit psychologically too. Some aimless youth, the disregarded middle son of a minor Saudi or Egyptian magnate is parked at a second rate business school in Europe and forgotten about. Later, his life having taken a more interesting turn, his mind turns to a lazy afternoon by the side of Lake Geneva or gazing out at the Reeperbahn as his teacher’s voice drones half regarded in the background. Something about…business processes, was it?

One of the things that always struck me about suicide bombers is that they’re a product. Specifically, they’re a weapons delivery system, manufactured from promising religious raw material. Logic suggests this as a self-limiting process. The individuals concerned would need a combination of deep disenchantment and a romantic/suicidal temperament. This would have to be intensified through training, presumably a laborious and intensive process, before you were sure of your man.

They’d need to be competent but not too intelligent: every suicide bomber is a cadre lost who might be more useful performing some other function (or maybe that should be: intelligent but not too competent).

All this suggests husbanding a scarce resource and would set a fairly low upper limit to the numbers available at any one time.

It may have been that way at the beginning, but business processes improve over time. Skills degenerate with the division of labour, turnover increases and commodities multiply.

The strategy teamed a handful of holy warriors trained in the Afghan camps with raw, local recruits. One expert calls them "Kleenex kamikazes," young men who are rapidly radicalized, used and then discarded.

That fits with what seems to be going on in Iraq, with suicide bombers handed over to the insurgents like so many boxes of Kalashnikovs or RPGs. It also explains how the group in Turkey were able to respond relatively quickly to the Bush visit to the UK. They must have had people in a semi-prepared state, like the half-baked baguettes you get in Tesco. The jihadis identified where they could strike most conveniently, heated up their operatives and sent them on their way.

Od course, to do this you need a fairly large reservoir of muslim youth who are both suicidal and homicidal. It’s reasonable to assume that this is less likely to be the case somewhere like the UK, where there are likely to be more life choices and a pluralist environment, than in the Middle East, Chechnya or Indonesia. Well, we can hope.

The resurgent global menace leads critics to assert that the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have boomeranged by scattering Al Qaeda's forces, making them harder to detect, and inspiring like-minded extremists.

"I think it [U.S. strategy] has backfired," said Alani, of the London defense studies institute. "There is no evidence they can cope effectively with these groups."

link through intel dump

Update: More on the AL Qaeda franchise here

Leaders of the al Qaeda terrorist network have franchised their organization's brand of synchronized, devastating violence to homegrown terrorist groups across the world, posing a formidable new challenge to counterterrorism forces, according to intelligence analysts and experts in the United States, Europe and the Arab world