Merchant of Death
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Al Qaeda at 20-Some thoughts
I think Peter Bergen's Outlook section piece in the Washington Post was very useful in looking at al Qaeda at 20. It is hard to believe they have been around that long.

Of particular to me is his discussion of the deep differences between Marc Sageman and Bruce Hoffman on the future of al Qaeda. After two decades the nature of the enemy, and how different parts relate to each other, are still in dispute.

Bergen got it right in explaining why the two views, although often presented as such, are not mutually exclusive. As with so much of how we view the new world and its complex and shifting networks and alliances, many in the policy community and intelligence communities want things to be one way or the other. Usually they are not.

This is true in large part because the enemy is constantly moving, realigning and reconfiguring, both in response to the internal dynamics within the groups, and to external pressures. Their Darwinian ability to adapt to survive, and the elimination of their weakest and least careful members, make the task of tracing them ever harder.

The groups will also undergo tests of trial and error (the biggest error, as Bergen points out, being al Qaeda in Iraq's impressive loss of support among the Sunni population because of its increasingly brutal tactics) that will lead to shifting behavior and thinking over time.

While al Qaeda Central, as Bergen and others call the old guard, no longer can exercise the direct command and control that had before, the demise of Al Qaeda in Iraq is largely a boon for bin Laden.

He now has foreign fighters flocking to areas where he exercises the most direct control, again making the core al Qaeda a vital reference point-personally, ideologically and theologically-to those movements.

This is ironic, as al Qaeda in a general sense has lost a great deal of sympathy around the world, as has the Taliban. State sponsorship, such as the Taliban received from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan prior to 9/11, is now considerably less and considerably more muted.

This lack of state sponsorship is one of the driving forces behind the growing ties of these groups to criminal activity. Only resources on the scale gleaned from drug trafficking can fund a significant army for any length of time. This is one of the reasons I feel so strongly that the alliance is both inevitable and incredibly dangerous.

I do not share Bergen's assessment that the probability of an attack on the U.S. in the next five years is slim. Given the resources and pipelines available once al Qaeda and its groups make alliances across criminal networks, I think such a prediction is premature. If anything, I would argue that the possibility of an al Qaeda-related groups acquiring and successfully moving some sort of nuclear or chemical weapon to the United States, will increase as the criminal ties increase.

So the threat remains, although not in the form it was at 9/11, or even last year. The challenge is moving beyond being able to describe the changes after they happen to anticipating the changes that will allow a strategy that will weaken the enemy before it moves up the evolutionary chain.

The Power of the Criminal-Terror Network in Afghanistan
The Dangers Of Forgoing Long-Term Assessments
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