Confronting Jihadist-based Terrorism

Sep 15, 2007

Despite the last six years of pressure, Al Qaeda and its inspired followers are still capable of taking the initiative in operations. Recent events in Pakistan, especially in the North West Frontier Province, demonstrate that Al Qaeda is rebuilding its core capabilities. Its highly successful propaganda and recruiting media machine, “As-Sahab,” also continues to function with a high degree of effectiveness.

From 2001 to 2003, Al Qaeda was under pressure at every level. From 2003 onwards, however, results against Al Qaeda and its followers have been decidedly mixed. Overall, it can be stated that Al Qaeda’s capabilities are now increasing and they hold the momentum in many operational areas. This is directly linked to the invasion of Iraq and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, as well as other ongoing conflicts in areas such as Palestine, and the Kashmir. In order to counter-act Al Qaeda plans, it is necessary to assess their strengths and weaknesses. Once that is understood, ­better responses can be developed.

Tactical, Operational and Strategic Capability Levels
Al Qaeda operatives can be understood by examining them in a hierarchical manner – similar to a military force.

At the tactical level, we find individuals such as homegrown jihadists and small individual cells. At the operational level, there are the major groups and their leaderships such as Al Qaeda itself, Laskar-e-Toiba, and Jemaah Islamia. At the strategic level are the ideas and concepts that make up the ideology of “global jihad.”

Currently, results at the tactical level are mixed. A number of attacks have been attributed to homegrown jihadists, such as the July 7th London bombings and the Madrid attacks. However, police and intelligence agencies in a number of countries have disrupted planned attacks before they could occur, and similar arrests are continuing. Overall, the situation seems to be tied.

At the operational level, the news has been much more positive from 2003 to 2006. Many of the major groups had been severely weakened due to arrests of personnel, loss of operating bases, and financial shortages. Groups such as Jemaah Islamia have not only been weakened, but many of their surviving members now want to engage in local issues rather than be part of the “global jihad” espoused by Al Qaeda. However, the winds are again shifting – Al Qaeda is rebuilding its core capabilities and reforming alliances to rebuild its global reach.

At the strategic level, the news is, and has been, generally dismal. Since the late 1990s, the battlespace for global jihadists has become the Internet – and they dominate this battle space almost entirely.

Despite much discussion in the west about “network centric warfare,” the reality remains that the information advantage, enabled by technology and organizational structures, is held by Al Qaeda and not the west. In addition to their internet advantage, Al Qaeda groups distribute their propaganda in the marketplace through CDs, DVDs and other mass media. Experts who monitor such issues full time state that the counter propaganda efforts on the Internet are limited to a few small programs run by individual groups such as the Religious Rehabilita­tion Group of Singapore. Some websites get shut down, but this is insignificant as the sites are usually back up in a matter of hours. If there was a coordinated multi-country approach to tackling this issue, we would stand a greater chance of degrading their capabilities.

The Threat to the West
Of particular interest to the west, in general, should be the phenomena of homegrown jihadism. It is clear that the roots of this problem pre-date the attacks of September 2001 and these roots continue to spread among youth in many western countries. The most interesting aspect of homegrown jihadism may be the way this fanaticism spreads. With many of the larger terrorist groups under pressure, the ideological message of Al Qaeda has flowed directly from the strategic level to potential recruits at the tactical level. Using the Internet and other such media, Al Qaeda’s virulent ideology can be directly transmitted from its home base in northern Pakistan to its followers around the world. It is likely that Al Qaeda’s “As-Sahab” media service is in the tribal areas of Kurram, Mohmand or Bajaur.

The Canadian Situation
Canada, like many other states, has no national level counter-terrorism strategy. What is the aim of the Canadian government when it comes to international terrorism in general, or Al Qaeda inspired terrorism specifically? Is the strategic aim a more pragmatic plan of denying terrorists what they seek, which is to disrupt our way of life? Terror is ultimately a political act with political goals.

Whatever the (lack of) direction, it is clear to students of history that the goal of “eradicating terrorism” will remain unobtainable until the key issues of oppression and poverty are addressed.

At the national level, it is probable that the most ambitious goal may be to prevent terrorism from altering our basic values and lifestyles. It is unlikely that any sort of coherency or long-term aims can be developed without a national strategy.

A Canadian Response
Canada’s response to terrorism over the last 25 years has been dubious at best. As a country, we have become a major ­centre for terrorist operations, recruiting, financing, and technical issues such as website hosting. More terrorist groups operate in Canada than any other country (with the exception of the United States of America). Very senior officials such as former Prime Minister Paul Martin deliberately and directly supported terrorist fundraising by speaking at a dinner for the Federation of Associations of Canadian Tamils (a fundraising front for the Tamil Tigers) despite having been warned about the nature of meetings he was attending. Even after the Air India bombing, politicians from all three levels of government continued to attend events associated with the “Kalistan,” a movement believed to be involved in the Air India bombing. At the same time, the Canadian government has been accommodating in numerous individual cases, such as using government influence to free Ahmed Said Khadr. He was being held in a Pakistani jail after it was clear he was the financier for a ­terrorist attack on the Egyptian Embassy in Pakistan. Khadr, a major Al Qaeda figure in, used Canadian taxpayer’s money to help build Al Qaeda in its early stages.

Canada needs to adopt a national strategy that is applicable to all citizens, including the leadership. Among key issues should be an assertion that core Canadian values cannot be compromised. If we change laws, policies or how we act, we may be losing the struggle. Presently, we have no overarching strategy to guide the rest of our actions – this leaves us vulnerable in many areas.

An International Response
Ultimately, the struggle against Al Qaeda’s ideological brand of terrorism needs to be fought at the strategic level. The militarized approach and the “guards, guns and gates” approach have already shown their limits. Ironically, the recent past may hold a valuable lesson on how to continue the fight against terrorism.

The Cold War was a power struggle by two vastly different ideologies – one eventually dominated while the other succumbed after a long, multi-faceted attack.

Summing up the Cold War approach can be captured by the acronym DIME – Diplomacy, Information and Intelligence, Military and Economy. As such, the fight against communism was carried out directly and indirectly using every means available to the west and its allies. The same approach could be used now.

In conflict areas such as Afghanistan or Haiti, the “3D” approach should be expanded – Defence, Diplomacy and Development must go hand-in-hand. Canada should be pushing its allies to play a larger role in all three areas.

The situation in Afghanistan is of special interest. Following the genocide in Rwanda, the international community began to talk about the “Responsibility to Protect.” Now, NATO needs to push for more diplomacy and development. If the Afghan mission collapses before a relatively secure Afghan government is in place, our credibility for future missions will be very much at stake as well.

The fight against terrorism should be an all-of-government approach across a series of like-minded states that have the common goal of stopping the spread of terrorism. The entire capabilities of the various governments must be mobilized, not just the military and intelligence ­services. Every part of government must consider that it has a role to play.

Canada can play a role by continuing to develop effective community engagement and by looking at religious rehabilitation programs. Current studies at leading international institutions studying jihadist based terrorism have developed serious counter terrorism efforts that could be undertaken to confront and discredit those who propagate jihadist based terrorism ideology.

One key area is education. Most young people are susceptible to recruitment in jihadist organizations not because of their religious beliefs, but because of their lack of understanding and background knowledge. At the same time, those who deal in extremist ideology need to have their false works confronted. This confrontation can take place in public forums, in government or on the Internet. Wherever it takes places, the message needs to be clear that the falsified teachings of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri and others will be exposed to their weaknesses.

Success in counter-terrorism means confronting all aspects of terrorism at all levels. By failing to engage the purveyors of terrorist ideology at the strategic level, we are giving them the long-term advantage – this we cannot afford.

Tom Quiggin is a court-qualified expert in jihadist terrorism and a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore.
© FrontLine Security 2007