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FOREIGN AFFAIRS - Osama's Learning Curve

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(STR-AUSAF NEWS PAPERF/AFP/Getty Images)

In Washington's broad counter-terrorism campaign of the 1990s, few actions backfired as badly as the one called Operation Infinite Reach. In response to the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa by Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network in August 1998, the United States fired 79 cruise missiles at a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan suspected of making chemical weapons. The Clinton Administration was roundly criticized for ineffectively firing million-dollar missiles at mud huts and relying on faulty intelligence to target what apparently was an aspirin factory.

In responding to the intense criticism, U.S. officials let out that they had used communications intercepts to place bin Laden directly at the camp fired upon and had narrowly missed killing him and many of his top lieutenants. Although the leak somewhat muted the immediate criticism, the failed operation haunts U.S. intelligence experts to this day.

Intelligence analysts at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., gnashed their teeth at the Clinton Administration's disclosure, believing that it could compromise one of their prized "sources and methods" of intelligence collection. They had reaped a bonanza of information by intercepting and decoding calls that bin Laden routinely made on an Inmarsat satellite telephone that he used to communicate with his far-flung network from remote hideaways in Afghanistan.


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Intelligence analysts hoped the leak about the phone intercepts would be buried unnoticed in the daily avalanche of information emanating from Western media outlets. But within days of the leak, bin Laden's satellite telephone went dead. According to a senior intelligence source, it was never heard from again. "That's just one of many examples of how we're constantly peering into the opaque world these terrorists inhabit, while they are using our own high-tech tools and a keen interest in our methods to see us in full transparency," he said. "They've gone to school on us."

Indeed, bin Laden's ability to construct an agile terrorist network that rapidly learns both from its own mistakes and from its enemies' successes long ago won the grudging respect of Western counter-terrorism experts. In the aftermath of September 11, understanding exactly what makes the Al Qaeda terrorist model uniquely lethal is now critical to the U.S. war on terrorism. Without such a thorough understanding, experts say, the United States cannot identify the strengths and potential weaknesses of Al Qaeda, nor can it predict with any certainty whether the organization and its model of pan-Islamic terrorism will survive the death or capture of its leader.

How did a fledgling terrorist organization develop so quickly? The group's somewhat amateurish first attack, on a hotel in Yemen in 1992, was bungled when the bombers failed to notice that U.S. troops on their way to Somalia had already vacated the hotel. But by 1998, Al Qaeda operatives were able to successfully attack the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in carefully synchronized bombings that killed 224 people and wounded more than 5,000 others. The crippling 2000 attack on the USS Cole and the catastrophic strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon followed like ominous drumbeats.

"If you go back 50 years, what you find is that roughly 80 percent of terrorist organizations fail to survive their first 12 months," said David Kay, a longtime counter-terrorism expert at Science Applications International Corp. "Only about half of those [that survive] will make it past two years before succumbing either to overwhelming government pressure, a failure to recruit replacements, or perhaps a lack of adequate financial support. The relatively few terrorist organizations that make it past five years, however, have learned lasting survival strategies. These `learning organizations' are the deadliest threats, and certainly Al Qaeda ranks high among them."

The Terrorist Diaspora

Without a doubt, bin Laden's continuous declarations throughout the 1990s of jihad, or holy war, against America, and Washington's designation of him as public enemy No. 1 attest both to his audacity and to his prodigious public relations skills. The very survival of this warrior-prince and former member of the Saudi elite, especially in the face of mounting American threats, has become part of the legend that draws downtrodden and disaffected Muslims from around the world to his cause.

The apocalyptic vision that makes bin Laden seem so demented to many Westerners may in fact represent one of his most important attributes as a terrorist leader. Bin Laden's signature success, say many experts, has been his ability to unite an increasingly disparate terrorist coalition under his pan-Islamic banner with a messianic message of coming war between Western and Islamic civilizations.

"This radical ideology of bin Laden's that dictates the overthrow of all governments that do not adhere to his strict interpretation of Islam is what makes him so lethal, because there is nothing quite so dangerous in this world as a religious zealot with means and a method to his madness," said Michael Swetnam, CEO of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and co-author of Usama bin Laden's al-Qaeda: Profile of a Terrorist Network. "That grand vision is what allowed bin Laden to essentially merge with 14 different terrorist organizations. The reason Al Qaeda developed so quickly is that rather than starting from scratch, it established itself as a super-coalition of existing terrorist organizations."

Bruce Hoffman is a longtime terrorism expert and analyst at the Rand think tank and the author of Inside Terrorism. "Throughout history, there have been terrorist leaders who aspired to create a `terrorist internationale,' but before bin Laden, no one has ever succeeded," he told National Journal. By constantly refining and broadening his list of grievances against the West, says Hoffman, bin Laden was able to attract the best talent in the terrorist pantheon, tapping the know-how of various groups to hone the expertise of the Al Qaeda organization as a whole. "In terms of terror, bin Laden is the fabled right person, at the right place, at the right time. He had a vision for uniting the disparate threads of Islamic extremism into a coherent force, and he found the money and people with the right organizational skills to realize it."

A watershed merger with Egyptian Islamic Jihad in 1998, for instance, brought to Al Qaeda the prodigious organizational skills of Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of the brains behind the Egyptian group's often spectacular terrorist attacks, which include the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat and the 1997 terror attack at Luxor that killed 58 tourists. From Algeria, Al Qaeda attracted members of the Armed Islamic Group, known for their fanaticism and ruthlessness in that nation's bloody civil war and for their skill in setting up logistical cells in foreign nations funded through credit card fraud and petty crime. Contacts with the Lebanese Hezbollah, meanwhile, exposed Al Qaeda to the skills of the undisputed masters of bomb-making and their tactics for suicide bombing.

In many ways, the September 11 attacks melded all these tactics into a virulent new model of terrorism: a meticulously planned, well-financed operation by "sleeper" cells of educated, sophisticated martyrs using airliners as weapons of mass destruction.

"When the second jet hit the World Trade Center, I knew immediately that bin Laden was behind it, because no other terrorist organization in the world combines that level of planning, sophistication, and organization with people willing to martyr themselves," said Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert and CNN analyst who has interviewed bin Laden in the past. "What makes Al Qaeda so dangerous is that these people have a level of belief that we in the West have lost."

But belief also comes with organization. Bin Laden has built Al Qaeda, or "The Base," into a terrorist multinational with distinct recruitment, indoctrination, and training divisions. Operationally, Al Qaeda gradually adopted a horizontal organizational structure that mirrors the best of the Fortune 500 companies.

After being kicked out of Saudi Arabia and Sudan in the early 1990s, bin Laden largely eschewed the direct state sponsorship that had supported traditional terrorist organizations in the past. Instead, he augmented contributions to Al Qaeda from his personal fortune with creative financing schemes that ranged from diamond smuggling, drug running, and extortion to siphoning off money from legitimate Islamic charities. Significantly, that financial independence freed Al Qaeda from the constraints state sponsors have traditionally imposed on the terrorist organizations they harbor. State sponsors never wanted to cross an invisible line of lethality that could provoke a direct backlash on their governments from the United States or the West. Bin Laden has no such constraint.

CNN's Bergen has been studying Al Qaeda ever since traveling to Afghanistan in 1997 as a TV producer to interview bin Laden. In his forthcoming book, Holy War Incorporated, Bergen says bin Laden has established himself by building consensus among a very sophisticated board of directors, much the way a chief executive officer runs a multinational corporation. The Al Qaeda corporation recruits and trains both blue-collar and white-collar workers, and it finds useful roles for them in its far-flung operations. Everyone from the top to the bottom, however, is a devoted believer in the CEO's unique vision and sense of purpose.

A Terrorist Incubator

When the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 and disintegrated soon after, and the CIA-supported mujahedeen groups took to fighting among themselves, the United States largely washed its hands of Afghanistan. At the time, U.S. officials failed to recognize just how effectively the worldwide system that had been established to recruit and train radicalized Muslims and funnel them to wage jihad against the Soviets could be reversed to export terrorism from Afghanistan in a holy war against the West. It is part of bin Laden's genius that he came to see it very clearly.

Seasoned by war and infused with fundamentalist fervor, most of the Arab mujahedeen returned to their homes in the Middle East determined to overthrow moderate regimes and monarchs alike. In their place, they would install theocracies devoted to these Arabs' fundamentalist view of Islam. While Iran circa 1979 represented the revolutionary model, their extreme interpretation of Islam owed more to the conservative Wahabi brand of Islam practiced in bin Laden's home of Saudi Arabia. By the mid-1990s, that worldview and the ideals of the "Afghan Arabs," as they came to be called, would find expression in the Taliban of Afghanistan.

Like the other Afghan Arabs, bin Laden returned to his home and began to agitate against the Saudi royal family. But he was soon distraught when the United States deployed troops to the kingdom to help defend it against Iraq during 1990-91, and then the Americans never left. Thus, while other Afghan Arabs were consumed by domestic opposition to local governments in places such as Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, and Tunisia, bin Laden began very early to focus on the United States as the primary target. The Afghan mujahedeen had defeated and helped destroy one superpower, and bin Laden was convinced as a matter of religious certitude that they could defeat another.

Already in 1992, Al Qaeda issued its first threats against the United States, declaring that U.S. military forces in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Somalia should be attacked. U.S. officials hardly took notice. In the spring of 1993, bin Laden dispatched his senior aide, Ali Mohamed, a naturalized American citizen and former member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, to Somalia to establish training camps to teach Somali tribes how to fight U.S. forces deployed there on a famine-relief mission. Somalis who'd been trained in Al Qaeda camps killed 18 U.S. servicemen in Mogadishu in October 1993, in an attack that led to the withdrawal of U.S. forces soon after. Bin Laden clearly believed he had identified a weakness in U.S. resolve that he could exploit in the future.

Pressured by the government of Saudi Arabia in 1991, bin Laden moved his base to Sudan, where he allied himself with Hasan al-Turabi, the radical leader of the fundamentalist National Islamic Front.

"Bin Laden's time in Sudan is interesting because he watched his mentor Turabi, who was the power behind the Islamic regime in Khartoum, declare jihad on the Christian south in a civil war that eventually killed 2 million Sudanese," said James Phillips, a Middle Eastern expert and senior analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. Turabi also taught bin Laden something else-the Sudanese leader was adept at bringing together Islamic revolutionaries of different stripes that normally didn't get along.

"You had Shiites from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards training alongside Sunni militants, which no one had seen in the past," Phillips said. "During this period, Al Qaeda began to serve as an important link in the cross-pollination between various radical Islamic groups, offering its finances and giving them global reach. In turn, bin Laden in this period also came to see seemingly isolated pockets of Islamic jihad-in Sudan, Kashmir, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, and Algeria and on the West Bank-as interrelated battles in a single struggle.... That vision of Al Qaeda as a conduit to jihad writ large made bin Laden much more dangerous."

Faced with a crippling embargo, under intense pressure from the United States, and eager by the mid-1990s to improve relations with the West, the Sudanese government put Turabi under house arrest and forced bin Laden to leave the country. Though the expulsion reportedly cost bin Laden much of his fortune, the Sudan experience clearly made a lasting impression on him.

A Strategic Watershed

By 1996, bin Laden was once again established in the familiar and, for him, fertile sanctuary of Afghanistan. There, he put down deep roots and built close ties to the ruling Taliban while erecting a network of Al Qaeda training camps. During this period in the mid- and late 1990s, most experts agree, Al Qaeda blossomed into a truly strategic threat to U.S. national security.

The timing was important. "A major strategic shift in the world of the Islamic radicals occurred around 1996, as a result of established regimes in Egypt, Algeria, and elsewhere largely defeating the Afghan extremists at home," said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international affairs and Middle East studies at Sarah Lawrence College, and the author of America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures or Clash of Interests? The remnants of these Islamic extremist groups were looking for a way out of their deadly traps, he says, and along comes bin Laden, telling them the cause of their defeat was the United States and its support for the established political order in the Middle East.

"So at a time when they had no place else to go, bin Laden not only offered a welcome message that the United States was behind all their troubles, but that Al Qaeda offered the tools and resources to strike out at the United States and do something about it," Gerges said. Significantly, it was around this time that bin Laden, backed by senior leaders of jihad movements in Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Pakistan, issued his famous fatwa. In the "International Islamic Front for Jihad on the Jews and Crusaders," bin Laden called on all Muslims to kill Americans, including civilians.

To prepare for this war, bin Laden established his network of terrorist training camps. Having already run six training camps during the Afghan war with the former Soviet Union, he well understood their usefulness not only as a means of indoctrination and training, but as a way to scout and promote the most promising talent. According to intelligence estimates, as many as 10,000 Islamic extremists may have passed through Afghan terror training camps, many of them run by bin Laden.

According to terrorism experts, bin Laden organized his training camps almost as a "Terrorism University." Students recruited by bin Laden scouts from around the world would typically travel to Pakistan, where they waited for weeks while undergoing thorough background checks to weed out possible Western intelligence agents. Recruits then passed through a series of specialized camps for religious indoctrination and small-weapons training. Largely uneducated youths from Pakistani madrassas, or fundamentalist religious schools, might be deemed best suited as front-line fighters. These undergraduates were often funneled to ongoing conflicts in Chechnya, Kashmir, or northern Afghanistan. More-educated recruits might be diverted to specialized camps to acquire computer science and other high-tech skills. Some graduates were encouraged to commit terrorist acts as a sort of audition, and then to return for what amounted to postgraduate work in bomb making and the complex business of overseeing terrorist cells in foreign countries. The most educated and promising of recruits were groomed from the beginning with this ultimate purpose in mind.

"The way bin Laden organized his training camps, recruits would never graduate to the next level or go on to more-sophisticated classes unless they had proven their capabilities and determination to work for Al Qaeda," said Bergen. "There was a whole hierarchy of instruction, ranging from religious indoctrination all the way to managing a cell, conducting surveillance, and planning and executing terrorist operations. And each class was organized on a `need-to-know' basis, so none of its members could compromise people further up in the hierarchy."

The degree to which Al Qaeda had institutionalized its terrorist training was revealed when investigators of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings discovered a CD-ROM version of an Al Qaeda terrorist training manual called Military Studies in the Jihad Against the Tyrants. Essentially a "how-to" instructional on operating a terrorist cell behind enemy lines, the manual coached operatives on everything from blending into Western societies ("Have a general appearance that does not indicate Islamic orientation"); to creating false identities ("Carry falsified personal documents and know all the information they contain"); to disguising communications and spreading disinformation ("When a telephone is being monitored ... the command can provide the information that misleads the enemy").

Innovative Operations

By decentralizing his terrorist operations through the use of largely autonomous and self-sustaining cells, bin Laden also denied the United States a center of gravity at which to strike at his organization. In fact, one of the most frustrating aspects of the counter-terror campaign for Western intelligence and law enforcement agencies has been trying to roll up the "sleeper" terrorist cells that Al Qaeda has patiently set up around the world over the past decade. Whenever terrorist cells are compromised, others seem to appear with alarming regularity.

Once again, counter-terrorism and intelligence experts say that bin Laden has innovated on the old model of terrorist operations. Because most terrorist organizations of the 1960s and 1970s were focused on domestic governments or on local struggles of liberation from colonial rule, they paid relatively little attention to learning how to embed operatives in foreign countries. And because many of those groups were leftist, they also tended to follow the Leninist model of hierarchical organizations with strict central control.

With a far more global agenda, bin Laden apparently drew his inspiration from state intelligence agencies that operated autonomous cells in foreign nations. A few terrorist organizations that strove to acquire a reach beyond their immediate region also mastered the technique, including the Palestinian Black September group, which carried out terrorist operations in Europe in the 1970s; the Irish Republican Army, which mounted effective terrorist bombings in Britain in the 1980s; and especially the Lebanese Hezbollah, which was responsible for bombing Israeli targets in Argentina in 1992 and 1994.

"The best and most-ambitious terrorist groups tend to adopt a cell structure as a way to harden themselves to penetration by their enemies-otherwise they wouldn't survive," said retired Col. Gary Anderson, director of the Marine Corps' Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities. "The process takes a lot of patience, because you have to build up a network of operatives that you trust, and have a good feel if any outsider is trying to break into the organization. The cell structure also has significant drawbacks in terms of command-and-control and reacting to dynamic events. They require a lot of careful and patient advanced planning. That's why bin Laden can't just wake up one day and decide he wants to bomb the Statue of Liberty in two weeks."

In carefully plotting its operations in advance, Al Qaeda benefited from the innovative use of radical Muslim clerics from around the world. These clerics' mosques became forward hubs for operations and potential recruiting stations. One former CIA operations chief likened bin Laden's use of radicalized mosques to the agency's use of embassies to recruit and stage operations. Indeed, he said, the Western tradition of governments keeping their hands off religious institutions has allowed bin Laden to use mosques as potential safe havens.

The role that a few radical Islamic clerics played in terrorist activities was conclusively revealed in the mid-1990s. Egyptian cleric Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who was considered the religious leader of the Afghan Arabs, was sentenced to life in prison in the United States for using his New Jersey mosque to help incite and plan a foiled bombing plot against the U.N. building and several tunnels in New York. Two of Abdel Rahman's sons later moved to Afghanistan to work at bin Laden's side.

"If the whole appeal of your organization is based on Islam, then mosques represent a wonderful place to recruit," said James Lindsay, a former National Security Council official in the Clinton Administration. "As is so often the case with bin Laden's tactics, they also exploit a perceived weakness of Western, liberal democracies, which have a long tradition of viewing religious institutions as sanctuary."

The articulation of a grand anti-Western vision that resonates in Pakistani madrassas and the palaces of the Islamic elite alike; a time-tested recruiting, training, and indoctrination system; decentralized and innovative operations that combine careful and patient strategic planning with largely autonomous operations-experts point to these as the core elements of Al Qaeda's hybrid model of terrorism. Combined, these traits have created a strain of terrorism, many believe, that is simply too lethal to abide.

"What separates this guy from all his one-trick predecessors is, he really has developed a learning organization," said Lt. Gen. James Terry Scott, retired commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command. "They learn from their successes and failures, as well as ours. Each time, we've prepared to defend ourselves against his last operation, and each time, he's discovered a new, asymmetric way to get at us. And if he's not stopped, he'll strike again."

As an example of that progression, experts point to Al Qaeda's planned attack on a U.S. Navy destroyer, the Sullivan, in early 2000. While U.S. embassies around the world were hardening themselves in anticipation of further truck bombings, Al Qaeda hatched a plot for a small boat to carry two suicide bombers to a U.S. warship. Under the tremendous weight of the explosives, however, the skiff sank. After adjustments, Al Qaeda launched a nearly identical attack on the USS Cole during a port stop in Yemen 10 months later, killing 17 U.S. sailors and very nearly sinking the state-of-the-art warship.

Even the devastating September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were foreshadowed by earlier, unsuccessful operations linked to Al Qaeda. These operations included the 1993 World Trade Center attack masterminded by Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who lived in a bin Laden "guesthouse" in Peshawar, Pakistan, both before and after the bombing.

Indeed, there are clear indications that bin Laden and his planners were looking to the skies as early as 1994. In that year, terrorists belonging to an Algerian Islamic extremist group with close ties to Al Qaeda hijacked an Air France airliner with the intention of flying it into the Eiffel Tower. The plan was thwarted when French commandos stormed the plane during a refueling stop, but apparently not before hijackers learned that Western commercial pilots could not be coerced at gunpoint into intentionally flying an airliner into a fixed structure. By the late 1990s, intelligence agents noted talk among Al Qaeda operatives of pilot training. By 2001, a sleeper cell of trained pilots was poised in the United States to carry out the September 11 attacks.

"In the Darwinian process by which terrorist organizations learn and constantly improve or else are crushed and fall by the wayside, Al Qaeda has shown that it can adapt and learn," said Hoffman of Rand. "In many ways, bin Laden also displays the skills of a consummate chess master, always thinking two or three moves ahead. Unfortunately, history suggests that he and Al Qaeda will now continually get more effective and bloodthirsty until they are stopped."

Chinks in the Armor

Despite the deadly threat it represents, Al Qaeda also has serious weaknesses that terrorism experts believe can be exploited. Chief among these is bin Laden's dependence on a sanctuary to operate effectively, either in Pakistan during the Afghan war or in Sudan and Afghanistan in the 1990s. Some experts are betting that Al Qaeda, once deprived of friendly territory in which to operate bases for indoctrinating and training new generations of recruits, will have difficulty reconstituting itself or effectively planning new waves of attacks.

"Unlike the [Irish Republican Army], which essentially learned to operate wholly in hostile territory, Al Qaeda's real weakness is that it has become addicted to operating in a permissive environment," said Kay of SAIC. "If we're effective at denying bin Laden that sanctuary in Afghanistan, it's not at all clear that he will be able rapidly learn to operate effectively underground or rebuild that infrastructure elsewhere."

Given the intensity and scope of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, it seems unlikely that any established state would risk offering sanctuary to bin Laden and his lieutenants. Even in many of the lawless regions of the world, bin Laden and the Al Qaeda ruling council, as easily identifiable Sunni Arabs, are likely to find it hard to blend in.

Daniel Benjamin, a former counter-terrorism expert on the National Security Council, agrees that the world is looking decidedly smaller to Al Qaeda's principals, despite their grand visions of a pan-Islamic empire. "Al Qaeda can probably only survive in places where there is no, or only nominal, government control, which means they have to look for other failed or weak states to insinuate themselves into. That doesn't mean, however, that Al Qaeda will never reappear in some form if the principals escape Afghanistan. Shining a light into all the dark corners of the world will take us a very long time."

The bin Laden cult of personality, meanwhile, is both a weakness and strength. Only a few terrorist organizations in the past have been as dependent on a single figurehead and his close lieutenants as Al Qaeda is, and most of those have foundered when the leadership was killed or arrested. The rapid demise of Peru's Shining Path terrorist organization after the 1992 arrest of leader Abimael Guzman is just the most recent example.

Yet the countless thousands of bin Laden posters now papering the walls of kiosks and cafes in the Islamic world underscore that no terrorist before bin Laden has so expertly mixed the lethal brew of pan-Islamic extremism, anti-Western hatred, and martyrdom. The United States almost certainly must kill or capture the man, and discredit his ideas. But killing the myth of Osama bin Laden may prove an altogether more difficult challenge.

James Kitfield National Journal

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