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Archive for August, 2006

[Originally published in the Baltimore Sun.]

Enormous pressure has been placed on al-Qaida since the fall of 2001. Our Afghan invasion cost it heavily, but more important, through our relationships with cooperative foreign intelligence services, we have been able to put al-Qaida under relentless pressure. Many of its top people have been killed or captured. Its communications and finances have been identified, monitored and disrupted, and its target countries have greatly increased their terrorist countermeasures. All of these things have weakened the terrorists and strengthened us and our friends.

This has resulted in a basic change in al-Qaida’s structure. Instead of the cohesive, centralized organization that dispatched a team of highly trained and effective terrorists to the United States to perpetrate the horrors of Sept. 11, it has become far less centrally controlled. The Sept. 11 plot, based, trained and funded from overseas, was a counterterrorism nightmare. Catching a homogeneous, dedicated group like that is extremely difficult. The new, homegrown terrorists are a different matter. Confronting them will require a new approach, and the U.S. might do well to look to the British model for answers.

In some ways, al-Qaida has franchised its activities to independent groups overseas, like a terrorist version of McDonald’s. The pressure we have put on its command structure has made that necessary. Although it might not tell any individual franchise what to do and when to do it, it is certainly supportive of their terrorist plans.

What is different about these new groups is that they are mostly homegrown. That means that their members are often second- or even third-generation citizens of their adopted countries. Depending on where they live, but particularly in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, they are politically, socially and economically isolated. Their hopelessness in the face of such isolation pushes them into ghettos. The most disaffected of them will tend to be the most susceptible to fundamentalist Muslim blandishments and thus more likely to become jihadis.

As beginning jihadis, they will not be as well-schooled as the original al-Qaida jihadis who trained for extended periods in the Afghan camps. More important, they will not have the same level of security consciousness as their better-trained colleagues. In short, they are far more likely to be second-rate jihadis who run sloppy operations using poor tradecraft and thus be more vulnerable to the security services arrayed against them.

Early reports from Britain indicate that MI-5’s first tip about the cell came from a member of the High Wycombe Muslim community who did not share the liquid bombers’ fundamentalist fervor and reported them as “suspicious” to the authorities. MI-5 is said to have then initiated technical operations against cell members and infiltrated or recruited an agent inside the cell.

As new organizations mature, they tend to change. This can be true of an Internet startup or of a terrorist organization. Once the excitement of the revolutionary moment has passed, human nature takes over. This may come quickly or take decades, as it did in the Soviet Union. Petty jealousies play increasingly important roles and management can become arbitrary. Members of the group can become disaffected and vulnerable to recruitment by hostile elements.

In human terms, there is no reason that this dynamic should not surface in fundamentalist Muslim terrorist groups. It may already have. There is also no reason why Muslims without animus toward the West should not continue to inform Western security services of unusual behavior in their communities. If this can happen in Britain, where large numbers of Muslims feel isolated and hopeless, it should be even more the case in America, where our history of acceptance of immigrants should minimize Muslim fundamentalism and encourage those who would help us with this struggle.

MI-5 has done a terrific job on this case. America’s problem is that the FBI, though an excellent law enforcement organization, is absolutely clueless on counterterrorism.

It is a shame that when we had the opportunity to do it right during the intelligence reorganization process after Sept. 11, we didn’t have the sense to follow the British model and establish a domestic intelligence service like MI-5. With proper legislative and judicial oversight, such a service is hardly a threat to civil liberties, and has the personnel, structure and operational philosophy to make major strides against the terrorism that preoccupies us all.

Haviland Smith retired as a CIA station chief in 1980. He served in Europe and the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.

Copyright © 2006, The Baltimore Sun

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