Al Qaeda After the Death of Bin Laden – The Future of Jihadist Terrorism
(Thomas Joscelyn, May 25, 2011)
Transcript available below
The death of Osama bin Laden will significantly affect both sides in the war on terror. The most important questions now are how will al Qaeda and its associated movements respond to the death of their leader, and is the United States safer or in more danger today? The Westminster Institute brings together world-renowned authorities and national security practitioners for a one-day special event in Washington, D.C. Together they will provide answers to these questions and also address the broader questions of what impact bin Laden’s death will have on non-violent jihadists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and what strategies can the U.S. employ to turn this battlefield win into a definitive victory.
About the speaker
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and is senior editor of FDD’s Long War Journal, a widely read publication dealing with counterterrorism and related issues. Much of his research focuses on how al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (or ISIS, ISIL) operate around the globe.
Joscelyn has served as a trainer for the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division. Thomas has testified before Congress on fourteen occasions, including before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, House Homeland Security Committee, House Foreign Affairs Committee, House Armed Services Committee, and House Judiciary Committee. He was the senior counterterrorism adviser to Mayor Giuliani during the 2008 presidential campaign.
Joscelyn has constructed dossiers for hundreds of terrorists during the course of his work. The DailyBeast has described him as one of “the most trusted authorities on the al-Qaeda network because of his encyclopedic knowledge of terrorist biographies.” In 2007, he published a monograph titled, “Iran’s Proxy War Against America,” which details Iran’s decades-long sponsorship of America’s terrorist enemies. In 2008, he completed an exhaustive review of the Guantanamo Bay detainee population, cataloging and analyzing thousands of pages of declassified documents.
Joscelyn is also a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard. His work has been published by a variety of other publications and cited by The Associated Press, Reuters, The Washington Post, USA Today, Time, Foreign Policy, and many others. He makes regular appearances on television and radio programs.
I am supposed to talk a little bit about the death of bin Laden and sort of the future of jihad and Al Qaeda and where things are going, and that may seem like a sort of obvious topic to address, you know, given recent events here, but I think of that night after Osama bin Laden was killed, after the news broke that he had been killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
I turned on CNN and I saw one of the guys who was considered one of the leading thinkers on Al Qaeda, a guy named Peter Bergen, who is CNN’s counterterrorism analyst. He said that the war was over, that is it, terrorism is over, we do not have anything to worry about anymore. That is it and, in fact, it is just that the Americans need to get beyond the War on Terror. As if it is something that we came up with, as if it is a construct in our heads and not something that we are actually fighting, you know.
So, I guess I would start by saying the war is, in fact, not over for a lot of reasons. I think that the ideological conflict has been greatly outlined by the previous presenters here today and so I am not going to touch so much on that, but so what I am going to talk about is much more about the nitty gritty of the fight and that starts with jihadist-sponsoring states.
Now, that may even seem like an obvious notation for everybody. I mean, you know, of course there are states that are involved in sponsoring terrorism and are involved in terrorism but in fact, much of the analysis that has proceeded here in the U.S. and in the West starts with the assumption that states are not in fact involved in sponsoring terrorism whether that be Al Qaeda or its like-minded affiliates around the globe.
And since we have a Cold War-minded crowd here today, I will start with a brief analogy. Back in the Cold War, back in 1981 in fact, the Reagan Administration decided it was going to confront Marxist and Leftist terrorism and Secretary of State Alexander Haig came forward and said that in fact, much of the terrorism that was on the planet, Marxist and Leftist terrorism, was sponsored by the Soviet Union.
And so, the Reagan Administration ordered up a National Intelligence Estimate on Soviet-sponsored terrorism and they kicked it over to the CIA’s analysts and the CIA’s Soviet analysts came back and said, well, no, in fact, the Soviets are not sponsoring terrorism. It is against their interests to do so and they would never do this. They would never be involved in sponsoring terrorism.
Well, the fight that ensued, a bureaucratic fight that ensued, was quite legendary. In fact, Bob Gates, the current Secretary of Defense, talks about this in his book From the Shadows and I recommend anybody go out there and read it because it is a pretty interesting characterization, I would say, from Bob Gates, who is ever the bureaucrat and sides with the bureaucrats to a certain extent.
I think he still gets the facts right of what happened and lo and behold, what happened was the Soviet analysts were wrong and Bill Casey and the CIA leadership and President Reagan were right. In fact, the Soviets were deeply involved in sponsoring terrorism. In fact, not only were the Soviets and their client states deeply involved in sponsoring terrorism generally and broadly in terms of training and so forth and ideologically, they actually were arming and training terrorist groups in Europe, in the Middle East, and elsewhere to attack us. In fact, in Lebanon a Soviet-backed terrorist group was actually tasked by the KGB to go out and kidnap the deputy head of the CIA in Lebanon in the 1970s.
So I just want you to pause for a second here and think about this. At the same time the Soviets are actually sponsoring terrorism against the CIA directly, the CIA’s Soviet analysts are saying that the Soviets are not sponsoring terrorism at all, okay?
That is the type of ideological, I would say, intellectual blind-spot you are dealing with when it comes to the analysis of terrorism. Now, you may be wondering, what does that have to do with today? What does that have to do with Al Qaeda and Islamist terrorism? Well, it turns out that in the 1990s our analysts, as brilliant as they are, made the same assumption again. They decided that Islamist terrorism, jihad, was not state sponsored. And in fact, if you go to the 9/11 Commission Report, you will see in the 9/11 Commission it specifically describes Al Qaeda as “stateless” and as a “new terrorism without any state backers.”
Now, if you go through the 9/11 Commission Report carefully as I have many, many times since 2004 when it came out, you will realize this is logically incoherent. When you actually look at the facts of what is reported in the 9/11 Commission Report.
Now, I will start with a very simple, basic overview of just safe haven for Al Qaeda. It starts in the early 1990s when bin Laden and Al Qaeda needed a place to live and they turned to Sudan, which at the time was run by a guy named Hasan al-Turabi, a leading member of the international Muslim Brotherhood.
And al-Turabi was a radical ideologue, a real dangerous thinker, if you actually get into how he thinks and how he viewed the world, it is really, really troubling. And al-Turabi did not see the world as, you know, divided between the Muslim world even, divided between Sunnis and Shiites. He saw the world as divided between Muslims and non-Muslims and so what he did with the Sudan is he turned it basically into this place for cross fertilization of all of these different terrorist groups and ideologues that come together and terrorist groups that come together, including Al Qaeda, and bin Laden.
You know, Osama bin Laden forged a lot of lasting relationships there in Sudan. So, his safe haven in Sudan as documented by the 9/11 Commission was a crucially important part in Al Qaeda’s development. Well, wait a minute, that is one state, right? So we have got one state where now we have one state that actually plays a role in sponsoring Al Qaeda.
Well, in the mid-1990s Al Qaeda’s safe haven in Sudan became troubled, I would say, under immense international pressure. And so, Sudan politely asked bin Laden to leave, basically, with Al Qaeda and what they did was they relocated to South Asia.
Now, going to the 9/11 Commission Report, what we find is the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment had long had a relationship with bin Laden and Al Qaeda going back to the 1980s when sort of proto-Al Qaeda was first getting going. The military-intelligence establishment in Pakistan likely knew he was coming – the 9/11 Commission found – and actually took steps to introduce him to the Taliban in Afghanistan to make sure he would have a safe haven in Afghanistan. Well, that is two states now that are playing a role in sponsoring Al Qaeda because now you had the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment, making sure that Al Qaeda’s leadership can relocate to Afghanistan.
Now, of course, they get to Afghanistan and what happens is that Al Qaeda forges this lasting relationship with the Taliban. There is a lot of nonsense out there about the Taliban can be split from Al Qaeda. I will not get into that today because that is a whole other session, but that is just not true. But here you have a third state, right? You have the Taliban in Afghanistan now, which is sponsoring or working with Al Qaeda.
So what does the paradigm stateless mean? Well, to me it is meaningless. It does not mean anything. It basically is trying to skirt around the fact that you have a number of bad actors that are really involved in sponsoring, harboring, training, at a variety of levels of assistance and support for Al Qaeda and its affiliates.
As you go through that what you realize when you start to accept the fact that states are involved in this fight, you start to see things a little differently. And I will give you a great example. If you look at the fight in Afghanistan right now, our military leaders and I would say our political leadership goes to great lengths to deny the fact that Pakistan and Iran are essentially waging proxy wars against American troops in Afghanistan. They occasionally will admit that yes, Iran is doing bad things and Pakistan is doing bad things, but they do not really want to get into the real war that is unfolding.
There is a lot that could be said about this, but one of the interesting sources that has come forward to really confirm the role of Pakistan and Iran are playing in Afghanistan, waging war against our troops are all of these leaked documents from WikiLeaks, including the Guantanamo Threat Assessments, State Department cables, and ISAF threat reports. Those are the three categories of documents that have been released by WikiLeaks.
Now, I guarantee you when Julian Assange set forth to leak these documents, that he did not think he was going to be talking about state-sponsored terrorism or he was going to be documenting what America’s enemies are up to, but that is, in fact, what he has done. And if you go through these documents in great detail, you find a lot of troubling revelations.
You find, for example, as I did that back in 2002 that the Pakistani ISI, the same group that introduced the Taliban to bin Laden back in the mid-1990s has actually been working very heavily with all of the different insurgency groups in Afghanistan, trying to bring them together and coordinate their attacks against Americans and even civilians.
In one case (this is really troubling from my perspective), they actually trained the Taliban to go after civilian workers in Afghanistan, including Red Cross workers. And the Pakistani military officers trained the Taliban to go into Afghanistan, kidnap and murder Red Cross workers, which they did. And in fact, they were relaying instructions for once this poor victim was kidnapped, the Taliban actually got on their phones and relayed to get instructions from in Pakistan for what to do with them. The order came from the Pakistani-supported Taliban leaders in Pakistan to kill him. Well, that is state sponsorship, is it not? I mean that is a state directly sponsoring jihadist terrorism.
And it gets worse than that. I think if you go across the board, you can actually see that Pakistan has basically become the home for all three of the chief insurgency groups that we are fighting in Afghanistan today. You have Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s group, which is known as the HeI. You have Mullah Omar’s Taliban, which, by the way, is located in Quetta. In fact, his group is called the Quetta Shura Taliban. Okay, hello, it is named after a Pakistani city. We all know where he is operating. The Pakistanis know where he is operating. They are protecting him.
The Haqqani network, which is the third main insurgency group, long-time clients of the Pakistani military intelligence establishment. In fact, the head of the Pakistani military has repeatedly tried to negotiate a power-sharing agreement for Siraj Haqqani, the head of the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan. That is how much they are under the patronage of the Pakistanis.
It is indisputable that these three groups are all originally Pakistani proxies. It is indisputable that they all receive support from Pakistan to this day. In fact, I could list hundreds of examples of how that is true. But there is something else that you should know about all three of them, which is that they are all deeply allied with Al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda is not just this group that is stateless as the 9/11 Commission found, but actually has both direct state-backers but also indirect state backing through the groups it has allied itself with, which are in turn state-backed. And so I come back to what Peter Bergen said about ‘the War on Terror is over’ and you are going to see a lot of people thinking along those lines, but I come back to where Osama bin Laden was killed, which is basically right near Pakistan’s version of West Point in Abbottabad, Pakistan.