Al Qaeda Scorecard

Arnaud de Borchgrave has an interesting commentary this morning entitled “Al Qaeda’s U.S. network” that I heard about on C-SPAN driving in this morning. It presents a bleak picture:

Before we convince ourselves al Qaeda is down for the count, check the stats. Islamist extremists in the world as estimated by moderate Muslim leaders: about 12 million. Fundamentalist sympathizers: 120 million. Those numbers represent 1 percent and 10 percent of the world’s Muslim population of 1.2 billion. The CIA puts the extremists much higher — 40 million. Then there’s the number who trust Osama bin Laden more than President Bush: a majority in Muslim countries whose populations total 450 million.

European intelligence services know an alarming number of mosques are privileged sanctuaries used by extremists. Self-proclaimed imams can choose any place, from a basement to a garage, and declare it a mosque, an Islamic place of worship. Germany has 8,000 mosques, according to German intelligence officials, to minister to a Turkish minority of 2.4 million and some 500,000 North African Muslims. France has some 10,000 mosques for 6 million North Africans; the U.S. about 2,000. Beyond normal Friday prayers in Western mosques, there is a common anti-American political message, virulent in Europe, more subtle and discreet in the United States. Intelligence chiefs on both sides of the Atlantic agree the Western world in general and the U.S. in particular now face a global ideological foe convinced the U.S. is the fount of all evil. France is summarily deporting imams who preach hatred and jihad, including one recently who had been a legal Turkish resident for 28 years.

Nasir Ahmad al Bahri, known as Abu Jandal, a former Osama bin Laden bodyguard, interviewed by Al Quds Al Arabi, a London-based, anti-U.S. Arab daily, said last week: “Al Qaeda is no longer an entity but an ideology against America. … The plan is now to draw the U.S. into a confrontation with all the Islamic peoples. … Bin Laden and al Qaeda have succeeded in drawing the U.S. into an unequal confrontation, not from a military technology standpoint but from the ideological aspect. Muslims [are now] fed up with the U.S., which lives in prosperity off our nation’s resources. I believe the U.S. is heading for its demise. Now that it has found what it wanted, al Qaeda can melt into a new caldron, and a new giant would be reborn. … Many Islamic world leaders would join it, and the confrontation with the U.S. would be inevitable. Al Qaeda would then [be] a vanguard army.”

These numbers are quite plausible, even conservative, and further discredit the “it’s just a few Muslim extremists” argument.

Ralph Peters, however, issues a much sunnier forecast.

Al Qaeda and its affiliates are losing. They’ll do their utmost to strike the United States before our elections. But even if they succeed, the effect will be the opposite of what they hope. And it won’t change the fact that the terrorist beast is badly wounded. The recent wave of arrests, from Pakistan through the Middle East to Britain, stunned the terrorists and sent them crawling for ever-deeper cover. The blow against terror has been so indisputable that even our embrace-the-terrorists-with-understanding crowd stopped crying that the War on Terror’s a failure (note the shift in campaign rhetoric). But it’s also a fact that this struggle is far from over. It will take at least a full generation — perhaps much longer — to rid the world of the demons who have appointed themselves as Allah’s executioners.

We do have some unexpected allies in this war, though: the terrorists themselves. Counter to the made-on-campus nonsense that we can’t succeed against terror, it’s the terrorists who can’t win. They can do horrific damage, creating scenes of slaughter among the innocent. But when it comes to employing such mega-violence, the terrorists are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

He goes on to list several events where the Islamists have made miscalculations, creating enemies of former allies.

Around the world, leaders have wondered if their country would be next. In a few cases, this led to appeasement. Yet far more often we’ve seen growing counter-terror cooperation — with far more arrests than you’ll read about in the newspapers.

Terrorists always overreach. They create fantasy worlds in which they convince themselves that a grand and gruesome gesture will bring world-changing results. Yet, the more powerful the blow they deliver, the more likely they are to unify their enemies. The recent arrests in Pakistan and Britain have been far more devastating to al Qaeda than media reports suggest. The headlines focus on the number of arrests, but an even greater loss to al Qaeda will be the loss of confidence in essential technologies. Osama bin Laden lost a great propaganda tool when he stopped allowing video cameras near him. (He grew too afraid for his personal safety after 9/11.) But the terrorists’ real “secret weapon” has been the Internet, the greatest means of disseminating hatred in history, more virulent by far than even the printing press. For years, Islamic extremists used the ‘Net with confidence and skill. It became their virtual empire and a citadel within which they could muster. Now — as a result of the seizure of over 50 computer discs in Pakistan and, by some reports, a thousand in Britain, along with loaded hard drives, Web address books and so much data we’ve barely begun to decipher it — al Qaeda must fear each next keystroke. Even before the recent arrests, al Qaeda and its allies found themselves restricted in their abilities to travel, to raise funds and even to use cell phones (another great terrorist tool). By diffusing their efforts instead of concentrating on one objective, they created enemies for themselves among governments that had long looked the other way.

The terrorists have been their own worst enemies, always over-reaching in time to prevent the world from forgetting that the threat is real and immediate. Their madness will be their undoing.

Peters is right that the terrorists are unlikely to achieve their political objectives and therefore we will ultimately win. What worries me is that too many Americans, including much of our political leadership, is still in a 9/10 mindset. I heard Sen. Chris Dodd on the Don Imus show this morning saying that President Bush is doing everything he can to make this an election about national security when what most Americans really care about are domestic issues like jobs and health care. Dodd is hardly a lunatic; he’s a senior senator and former head of the Democratic Party. If it’s really the case that he doesn’t understand that we’re in a war, and that reflects a plurality view, then we’re in trouble.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Joseph Marshall says:

    Well, James, it worries me too. It also worries me that this Administration has just admitted that the “financial buildings” alert was a massive false alarm–an obvious piece of politcal grandstanding and quite expensive, by the way, for the municipalities involved.

    Do you seriously think that such things encourage us to take the terror threat seriously? I don’t.

  2. Bithead says:

    The questions, then, to my mind become,

    1: How much crediblity we want to give each argument.

    2: If the less sunny forcast wins out in point one, then the question becomes how pragmatic the ones that don’t get killed outright, become.

    As to point2, Let’s look at this from the angle of the Muslim who is sympathetic to the cause, but not fully committed. He sees the numbers of bodies behind the opposition.. comprised of both western and arab government forces, and may decide it’s not such a good cause to be behind after all. A look at what’s going on with Al Sadr at the moment seems a rather prime example of this.

  3. James Joyner says:


    I must have missed that memo. When is it that they made such an admission?

  4. Bithead says:

    I had a flat tire on my truck this morning.

    It must have been because this Administration has been playing politics with Terrorism.


  5. John McAllister says:

    If memory serves, (take w/ requisite grains of salt) Zogby did a poll some time ago of Muslims living in America which came up with results comparable to de Borchgrave’s. 10% described themselves as “radical” (perhaps a broader term in Islam). But 10% of the radicals responded “yes” to the question “Would you be willing to take up arms against the US if so directed?” That gives a similar 10% / 1% split.

    The “if so directed” is disturbing in that one person arrested for taking photographs of terriorism targets claimed innocence by saying “I didn’t know it was for terrorism. My imam just asked me to do it. And when your imam asks you to do something, you just do it – you don’t need to ask questions…”

    If this assertion is true (whether true or not in this case), that means 30,000 Muslims currently living in America who would at least consider responding to such a call-to-arms fatwah by an imam they considered in a position to issue it.

  6. LJD says:

    The Alert was a false alarm? Who said that?

    Case in point on the 9/10 midset: Yesterday we engaged in major military operation in Najaf, yet network “news” chose to lead with the story about an adultering Democrat, that hired an unqualified assistant, who is now blackmailing him, who has disclosed, with wife at his side, that he is now gay…. Is this world news or Jerry Springer?

    One thought on the “millions” of extremists….
    It sounds like a lot, fortunately we have automatic weapons, cluster bombs, etc. This is no joke; they hate us. THEY have promised to fight until they’re dead. We should be glad to oblige them by shedding their “last drop of blood”.

    Oh yeah, they fight like cowards, killing women, children, their own people…. Hiding in hospitals, mosques, schools…

  7. Boyd says:

    Our liberal friend apparently is one who believes that sufficient repetition of a lie eventually makes it the truth.

    This approach has a long and rich history. I won’t bother to name names, other than Mike Godwin.

  8. Joseph Marshall says:

    I have tried posting this several times yesterday, but somehow it didn’t get through:

    Official: No Evidence Attack Is Imminent

    Associated Press Writer
    WASHINGTON (AP) — Two weeks ago, when Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge warned of possible al-Qaida attacks, the “where” was very specific: financial institutions in New York City, Washington and Newark, N.J. The “when,” however, was a mystery. And since Ridge’s announcement, the Bush administration has discovered no evidence of imminent plans by terrorists to attack U.S. buildings, a White House official acknowledged Thursday.

    Some documents and computer files seized in al-Qaida raids included surveillance reports of the financial buildings during 2000 and 2001, which prompted warnings Aug. 1 from the White House about possible threats. But nothing in the documents themselves has suggested any attack was planned soon, the official said.

    “I have not seen an indication of an imminent operation,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity with reporters from nearly a dozen news organizations. Investigators are still poring over volumes of the seized information.

  9. Joseph Marshall says:

    Now that I am sure that I can get through again, I’ll add this comment: We may quibble at how “false” the alarm was since there is obvious and objective evidence that our enemies have been eyeing these buildings for some time.

    But there is no way on earth that the draconian political grandstanding that we have seen can be sustained for every potential incident where we know “where” but not “when”. It may have “stopped” a terror attack (since any terrorist with sense would wait until the precautions are lifted), but it can in no way be sustained indefinitely, which is why the “when” is so important.

    Consider the following:

    “D.C. Exasperated by Security Measures

    Associated Press Writer

    WASHINGTON (AP) — Near the White House, stores now rely on handcarts – not trucks – to get their deliveries. Ambulances face delays. And officials worry about what will happen when summer ends and commuters once again push full-scale into the city’s center every day.

    The recent round of terror-related security alerts has caused broad new restrictions in the nation’s capital, inconveniencing people who live and work here and leading to increasingly bitter words between federal and city officials….

    While previous closures have prompted loose commitments to consult with the city beforehand, federal officials concede that has rarely occurred. The dispute over the new Capitol roadblocks prompted an Aug. 9 meeting that produced an agreement for monthly meetings to discuss street-level security concerns – and Capitol police agreed to allow city emergency vehicles to proceed through their checkpoints….

    “This is a living city, and it simply cannot move if we have as many checkpoints and street closings as they have foisted on us,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s nonvoting representative to Congress.”

    Now, without prejudice, “security” measures which don’t allow the access of ambulences, fire trucks, or city police through the checkpoints are simply absurd, and the fact that there had to be a “meeting” to arrange it is a comic outrage.

    The Bush Administration should either get serious about low profile, proactive, permanent solutions that really work, or turn the matter over to the other party.

    And everyone here knows why they won’t get serious about it: it generates no photo-ops.