Peter Bergen, author of The Longest War.
Vince Talotta/Toronto Star
So it has come to this.
Ten years after the carnage of 9/11, the seismic shift in the geopolitical landscape, the threat of terror and the terror of threats, the revival of torture and erosion of rights, the trillion dollars spent and hundreds of thousands of lives lost in unresolved wars, the scorecard of America’s confrontation with Al Qaeda is in.
“It’s two for Al Qaeda and 10 for the West and the rest,” says Peter Bergen, author of The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda.
His conclusion is more than casual punditry.
Bergen is an encyclopedic chronicler of the world’s most famous terrorist brand and its elusive founder Osama bin Laden. He is one of the few journalists to have interviewed bin Laden, when the Islamist icon was still a bearded curiosity huddled in the remote mountains of Afghanistan.
And Bergen’s earlier book, The Osama bin Laden I Know, is an exhaustive oral history assembled from dozens of interviews of OBL associates.
Now, after studying the post 9/11 battle with bin Laden from every angle — from inside Washington’s beltway to the claustrophobic confines of Guantanamo Bay to the aeries of the Afghan insurgency — Bergen believes that for all its psychological successes, Al Qaeda is ultimately on the losing side.
“It had a big victory on 9/11, and it gets another point because of the Iraq war,” he said by phone from Washington, where he is CNN’s national security analyst and a fellow of the New America Foundation, a public policy institute and think tank.
“But the U.S. and its allies have inflicted tremendous damage on Al Qaeda, and it has made a world of enemies from Western governments to those of Muslim countries, and most Muslims, too.”
Furthermore, Bergen says, the faction often seen as fiendishly clever has made some grievous errors — starting with 9/11.
“Its biggest mistake was attacking the United States, which turned out to be a kind of kamikaze mission for the organization because it didn’t achieve any of its wider goals.”
Those were American withdrawal from the Middle East, and the collapse of Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt: aims that brought dramatically opposite results.
“None of those things happened, so post facto, they said many years later ‘our intention was to pull the Americans into the Middle East to fight a war that would bleed them dry.’ ”
That didn’t happen either — which speaks poorly of the organization’s research skills and its “naïve” sense of the American economy. In spite of Washington’s vast expenditures on Iraq and Afghanistan, it is losing a smaller portion of its GNP on today’s wars than it did in Vietnam.
While the U.S. made some serious errors in the long and bloody confrontation with Al Qaeda, including bin Laden’s escape from Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, waging the Afghan war “on the cheap,” and taking drastic security measures that undermined its credibility in many parts of the world, Bergen says, Al Qaeda’s mistakes were more damaging to its cause.
“Both sides made errors. But the U.S. learned from them. Al Qaeda hasn’t learned from its mistakes.”
As a result, Bergen argues, it’s becoming a spent force — an evil Wizard of Oz whose voice ripples out in terrifying waves, but who is a shrinking presence behind an obscure curtain.
Unlike the wily wizard, though, bin Laden and his adherents have sparked an upheaval in the most powerful nation’s security, a reshuffle of global political alignments, the trampling of hard-won human rights, and the birth of a multi-billion-dollar anti-terrorism industry inhabited by people who fiercely defend their roles as “patriots.”
Some would argue that for a ragtag band of cave dwellers that’s not a bad outcome.
Bergen agrees Al Qaeda still has enough clout to recruit the young and restless for deadly missions. And though support for its grisly methods is “cratering in Muslim country after Muslim country,” the peril it poses is real.
“The Baader Meinhof gang inflicted a lot of damage on Germany in the 1970s, and it was a very small group of people with no public support,” he points out. “Losing the war of ideas isn’t necessarily a game-changer for Al Qaeda. They value one recruit more than 1,000 followers.”
Now, Al Qaeda’s modus operandi has become a blueprint for deadly groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, held responsible for the 2008 attack on Mumbai, which targeted two hotels, a Jewish centre and a train station, killing more than 160 people. Somalia’s al-Shabab follows their ideology of Islamic extremism that embraces amputation and beheading as punishments for violations of its laws, and clones in Yemen and the North African Maghreb take their inspiration from Al Qaeda, killing, kidnapping and destabilizing weak countries.
Perhaps bin Laden’s biggest triumph is that he’s still free.
In spite of numerous blogs claiming to know exactly where to find him — and blaming various conspiracies for ignoring the information — Bergen says it’s not surprising the world’s most wanted man is on the loose.
“He’s in or around the tribal regions of Pakistan. But that’s a bit like saying he’s in Ontario.”
Ever since the disastrous battle of Tora Bora — when American General Tommy Franks refused to deploy the reinforcements needed to intercept Al Qaeda’s fleeing inner circle on the grounds that the troops were needed elsewhere — bin Laden has dodged his pursuers.
The special forces who tried in vain to head him off knew that once he crossed the border the hunt would be doubly difficult. A decade of frustration has proved them right.
Part of the problem is the isolated and clannish nature of the border land, where betrayal is punishable by death. Loyalty, too, would play a role, and with most of bin Laden’s wives relocated to safer ground, he might also form blood ties by marrying into new families. The $25 million bounty offered for turning him over has had no effect.
Bin Laden’s obsessive secrecy is also a factor. If he avoids tell-tale cell and satellite phones or other devices, and stays close to his hideout, he could remain undetected for years to come, Bergen says.
In March 1997 Bergen learned firsthand the “extraordinary lengths to which members of Al Qaeda went to protect their leader,” when he did a ground-breaking CNN interview near Tora Bora.
His crew were blindfolded, electronically swept for tracking devices, made to change vehicles on the way to the hideout, and taken to meet bin Laden at night.
The tall, gaunt leader had a “monk-like detachment from material comforts,” Bergen found, and had strenuously prepared for life as a fugitive.
That included escape practice on foot through the mountains to Pakistan, dragging exhausted family members on arduous 14-hour forays.
In spite of the long odds on capturing bin Laden now, Bergen says, it is an important goal for the war on Al Qaeda.
“The Nazi party is very different from Al Qaeda but there is one similarity,” he says. “When you joined the party you swore a personal oath of allegiance to Adolph Hitler. With Al Qaeda you swear an oath to bin Laden.”
But the fierce loyalty he commands could also be a liability when he dies or is captured. Without its iconic “father” figure, Al Qaeda’s future would be more uncertain, although one of his 11 sons could try to continue the family brand.
While Al Qaeda in its present form might be diminished, Bergen warns, the war on terror is far from over.
And he warns, although the bonds between Al Qaeda and the Taliban have frayed since the 9/11 attack got the Afghan militants run out of town by the United States and its allies, letting the Taliban take back territory in Afghanistan could create new terrorist bases.
“To focus only on whether the Taliban would bring Al Qaeda back is to miss the point. Pre 9/11 every Muslim insurgent in the world was headquartered there, not just Al Qaeda. I have no reason to expect that wouldn’t happen again if they came back.”
With thousands of underemployed, disaffected men in the Muslim world, bin Laden’s violent anti-Westernism will continue to find supporters, Bergen writes in The Longest War. A book that may have a sequel a decade from now.
“Arresting people is generally a relatively simple matter. Arresting ideas is another thing entirely.”
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