Early on the safest guess was that they were something new. I still think that the falling costs of havoc have changed the old equations. Richard Reid, though made me wonder. Clearly al Qaeda was scraping the bottom of the barrel when they used him. Since then we've seen more evidence that al Qaeda's bench is weak. They can get lots of fairly ordinary people to commit suicide, but they seem to have trouble holding and recruiting the elite operatives that would make them truly dangerous.
In retrospect, al Qaeda's "success" on 9/11 seems to have had a large element of chance. They were "unlucky" on a prior attack on the WTC (the basement bombing) and they were almost supernaturally "lucky" on 9/11. Having Afghanistan as a base was critical, and being left relatively alone helped them too. They don't loom so large now, in large part due to the US military action in Afghanistan. Since then, however, Bush has seemed to be acting as an agent of bin Laden -- helping rather than hurting him. Cole expands:
Juan Cole - Informed Comment Top Ten Mistakes of the Bush Administration in Reacting to Al-QaedaIf al Qaeda is not an ephocal threat, do we really need to surrender our freedom, and change the balance of American government? Are we throwing away our freedom for no good reason?
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
... On September 11, 2001, the question was whether we had underestimated al-Qaeda. It appeared to be a Muslim version of the radical seventies groups like the Baader Meinhoff gang or the Japanese Red Army. It was small, only a few hundred really committed members who had sworn fealty to Bin Laden and would actually kill themselves in suicide attacks. There were a few thousand close sympathizers, who had passed through the Afghanistan training camps or otherwise been inducted into the world view. But could a small terrorist group commit mayhem on that scale? Might there be something more to it?...
Over four years later, there is no doubt. Al-Qaeda is a small terrorist network that has spawned a few copy-cats and wannabes. Its breakthrough was to recruit some high-powered engineers in Hamburg, which it immediately used up. Most al-Qaeda recruits are marginal people, people like Zacarias Moussawi and Richard Reid, who would be mere cranks if they hadn't been manipulated into trying something dangerous... They are left mostly with cranks, petty thieves, drug smugglers, bored bank tellers, shopkeepers, and so forth, persons who could pull off a bombing of trains in Madrid or London, but who could not for the life of them do a really big operation.
The Bush administration and the American Right generally has refused to acknowledge what we now know. Al-Qaeda is dangerous. All small terrorist groups can do damage. But it is not an epochal threat to the United States or its allies of the sort the Soviet Union was (and that threat was consistently exaggerated, as well).
In fact, the United States invaded a major Muslim country, occupied it militarily, tortured its citizens, killed tens of thousands, tinkered with the economy-- did all those things that Muslim nationalists had feared and warned against, and there hasn't even been much of a reaction from the Muslim world. Only a few thousand volunteers went to fight. Most people just seem worried that the US will destabilize their region and leave a lot of trouble behind them. People are used to seeing Great Powers do as they will. A Syrian official before the war told a journalist friend of mine that people in the Middle East had been seeing these sorts of invasions since Napoleon took Egypt in 1798. "Well," he shrugged, "usually they leave behind a few good things when they finally leave."
Because they exaggerate the scale of the conflict, and because they use it cynically, Bush and Cheney have grossly mismanaged the struggle against al-Qaeda and Muslim radicalism after September 11. Here are their chief errors:
1. Bush vastly exaggerates al-Qaeda's size, sweep and importance, while failing to invest in genuine counterterrorist measures such as port security or security for US nuclear plants.
2. Bush could have eradicated the core al-Qaeda group by putting resources into the effort in 2002. He did not, leaving al-Zawahiri and Bin Laden to taunt us, inspire our enemies and organize for years after the Taliban were defeated. It would be as though Truman had allowed Hitler to broadcast calls for terrorism against the US from some hiding place as late as 1949.
3. Bush opened a second front against Iraq before he had put Afghanistan on a sound footing.
4. Bush gutted the US constitution, tossing out the Fourth Amendment, by assiduously spying on Americans without warrants. None of those spying efforts has been shown to have resulted in any security benefits for the United States. Bush says that he wants to watch anyone who calls the phone numbers associated with al-Qaeda. But some of those phone numbers were for food delivery or laundry. We want a judge to sign off on a wire tap so that innocent Americans are not spied on by the government.
5. Bush attempted to associate the threat from al-Qaeda with Iran and Syria. Iran is a fundamentalist Shiite country that hates al-Qaeda. Syria is a secular Arab nationalist country that hates al-Qaeda. Indeed, Syria tortured al-Qaeda operatives for Bush, until Bush decided to get Syria itself. Bush and Cheney have cynically used a national tragedy to further their aggressive policies of Great Power domination.
6. Bush by invading Iraq pushed the Iraqi Sunni Arabs to desert secular Arab nationalism. Four fifths of the Sunni Arab vote in the recent election went to hard line Sunni fundamentalist parties. This development is unprecedented in Iraqi history. Iraqi Sunni Arabs are nationalists, whether secular or religious, and there is no real danger of most of them joining al-Qaeda. But Bush has spread political Islam and has strengthened its influence.
7. Bush diverted at least one trillion dollars in US security spending from the counter-terrorism struggle against al-Qaeda to the Iraq debacle, at the same time that he has run up half a trillion dollar annual deficits, contributing to a spike in inflation, harming the US economy, and making the US less effective in counterterrorism.
8. Counterterrorism requires friendly allies and close cooperation. The Bush administration alienated France, Germany and Spain, along with many Middle Eastern nations that had long waged struggles of their own against terrorist groups. Bush is widely despised and has left America isolated in the world. Virtually all the publics of all major nations hate US policy. One poll showed that in secular Turkey where Muslim extremism is widely reviled and Bin Laden is generally disliked, the public preferred Bin Laden to Bush. Bush is widely seen as more dangerous than al-Qaeda. This image is bad for US counterterrorism efforts.
9. Bush transported detainees to torture sites in Eastern Europe. Under European Union laws, both torture and involvement in torture are illegal,and European officials can be tried for these crimes. HOw many European counterterrorism officials will want to work closely with the Americans if, for all they know, this association could end in jail time? Indeed, in Washington it is said that a lot of our best CIA officers are leaving, afraid that they are being ordered to do things that are illegal, and for which they could be tried once another administration comes to power in Washington.
10. Bush's failure to capture Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri allows them to continue to grandstand, to continue to frighten the public, to continue to affect financial markets, and to continue to plot. Al-Zawahiri almost certainly plotted the 7/7 London subway bombings himself, and gloated about it when he issued Muhammad Siddique Khan's suicide statement. Misplaced Bush priorities are getting our allies hit. The CIA is reduced to firing predators at villages because our counterterrorism efforts have been starved for funds by the Iraq quagmire. If al-Qaeda does pull off another American operation, it may well give Bush and Cheney an opportunity to destroy the US constitution altogether, finally giving Bin Laden his long-sought revenge on Americans for the way he believes they have forced Palestinians and other Muslims to live under lawless foreign domination or local tyranny.
My best explanation for Bush is that he's a deep KGB plant -- or an agent of a malign alien civilization. Next that he's incompetent. Lastly that he's the human expression of a rather scary desire of many Americans for the Great White Father. However, America elected him (once), and America elected his party to control the House, Senate and Supreme Court, and now America may choose to support his reinterpretations of the Constitution. If Bush is not challenged, history will judge that Americans took this road voluntarily and consciously. Thus will a great dream die.