Thursday, August 12, 2004

Inside Al-Qaeda’s Hard Drive

There's an interesting article with the above title in The Atlantic this month, by a journalist who acquired a couple of computers stolen from Al Qaeda's office the night before the fall of Kabul. He's spent over a year translating and decoding the files and interviewing former jihadis to find out what it all means. The result is an unprecedented insight into the operations and office politics of Al Qaeda in the runup to September 11th.

Here's the money quote:

Perhaps one of the most important insights to emerge from the computer is that 9/11 sprang not so much from al-Qaeda's strengths as from its weaknesses. The computer did not reveal any links to Iraq or any other deep-pocketed government; amid the group's penury the members fell to bitter infighting. The blow against the United States was meant to put an end to the internal rivalries, which are manifest in vitriolic memos between Kabul and cells abroad. Al-Qaeda's leaders worried about a military response from the United States, but in such a response they spied opportunity: they had fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and they fondly remembered that war as a galvanizing experience, an event that roused the indifferent of the Arab world to fight and win against a technologically superior Western infidel. The jihadis expected the United States, like the Soviet Union, to be a clumsy opponent. Afghanistan would again become a slowly filling graveyard for the imperial ambitions of a superpower.

Like the early Russian anarchists who wrote some of the most persuasive tracts on the uses of terror, al-Qaeda understood that its attacks would not lead to a quick collapse of the great powers. Rather, its aim was to tempt the powers to strike back in a way that would create sympathy for the terrorists. Al-Qaeda has so far gained little from the ground war in Afghanistan; the conflict in Iraq, closer to the center of the Arab world, is potentially more fruitful. As Arab resentment against the United States spreads, al-Qaeda may look less like a tightly knit terror group and more like a mass movement. And as the group develops synergy in working with other groups branded by the United States as enemies (in Iraq, the Israeli-occupied territories, Kashmir, the Mindanao Peninsula, and Chechnya, to name a few places), one wonders if the United States is indeed playing the role written for it on the computer.

Only an American would even wonder. From down here, it looks absolutely clear that that is exactly what is happening. The United States has been played; their desire for revenge and not to look "weak" in the face of terrorism has led them to be Al Qaeda's best recruiters, and their pursuit of military rather than political "solutions" is doing more than anything else to bring about Osama bin Laden's dream of a fundamentalist "war of civilizations" between Islam and the west.