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In pursuit of the unknowable

The USA is planning a secret worldwide war against remaining al-Qaeda members - as soon as it finds out where they are.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

Whatever happened to bin Laden and his not-so-merry men? That’s the question haunting US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who is reportedly ‘frustrated that military operations in and around Afghanistan have reached a plateau without the elimination of al-Qaeda’ (1).

On 12 August 2002, the New York Times revealed Rumsfeld’s plans to send undercover agents to the four corners of the Earth to ‘capture or kill’ any remaining al-Qaeda members (2). But there’s a problem: the US authorities don’t seem to know where al-Qaeda is, how big it is, what its capabilities are, who the boss is, or what it plans to do next.

Consider the size question. ‘There are an estimated 5000 al-Qaeda supporters still left in Afghanistan and Pakistan’, said a US commander in July 2002. Despite the ‘best efforts’ of the US military campaign in Afghanistan, said the commander, ‘substantial al-Qaeda numbers’ remain. ‘[T]here is still a significant presence’, echoed Colonel Michael Flynn, director of intelligence at Bagram airbase (3).

But at the end of July 2002, the FBI said there were only about 200 hardcore al-Qaeda members left in the world. ‘Al-Qaeda itself is less than 200 strong’, said an FBI official, claiming that vast numbers of bin Laden supporters had been ‘dispersed’ by the war on terror. Based ‘on evidence gathered by the FBI and the CIA’, the official said the 200 figure even included ‘al-Qaeda members who are now in custody at Guantanamo Bay’ (4).

‘Everyone tries to tie everything into 9/11 and al-Qaeda’, said the official. ‘There was even a report suggesting that al-Qaeda is about 5000 strong. It is nowhere near 5000 strong….’ (5)

In the same month, the Washington Times reported that there were 5000 al-Qaeda ‘terrorists and supporters’ in the USA alone. ‘US intelligence agencies are watching several groups of Middle Eastern men thought to be part of an infrastructure of as many as 5000 al-Qaeda…in the United States’, reported the paper (6).

Apparently, ‘one intelligence estimate is that there are up to 5000 people in the United States connected to al-Qaeda’, over 100 of whom are ‘active members, with hundreds of sympathisers’ (7). Can there really be the same number of al-Qaeda supporters in the USA as there are in Afghanistan and Pakistan? If you add the 5000 American al-Qaeda to the 5000 Afghan/Pakistani al-Qaeda, that makes a worldwide network of 10,000 bin Ladenites. Has the FBI missed something?

Apparently, there’s more. According to the US State Department’s annual report Patterns of Global Terrorism, launched in May 2002, ‘al-Qaeda’s agents are still a threat in 60 nations’. The State Department claims that ‘despite [the] military victory over the Taliban, between 10,000 and 30,000 al-Qaeda operatives [are] still at large in 60 countries’ (8). (It also claimed that the World Cup would be a ‘prime target for such groups’, which never happened – even after Saudi Arabia lost 8-nil to Germany.)

At the launch of the report, US secretary of state Colin Powell hailed the war on terror a success, pointing to the detention of ‘1600 al-Qaeda operatives’ as a major achievement. Sixteen-hundred al-Qaeda detained by the US? What about the FBI’s claims that there are only 200 al-Qaeda members left, including those currently detained by the US?

Just how big is al-Qaeda: 200, 1000, 5000, 10,000 or 30,000? Any advance on 30,000? Don’t ask Donald Rumsfeld, man in charge of the war on terror, who said at the end of July 2002: ‘I have seen intelligence estimates, but my impression of those estimates is that they don’t know much more than I do, and I don’t have a number.’

The US authorities have also had trouble pinpointing al-Qaeda’s whereabouts. In July 2002, US deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz claimed that al-Qaeda is everywhere – including in quiet, sunny Florida. ‘They’re burrowed into some 60 countries around the world’, said Wolfowitz. ‘They have headquarters in Hamburg, Germany, and in Jacksonville, Florida, not just in Afghanistan – and it’s going to take a long time to root them out.’ (9)

Al-Qaeda in Jacksonville? Not according to Florida’s County Sheriff. ‘We have no credible information that…there is an active al-Qaeda cell in Jacksonville’, said County Sheriff Nat Glover (10). According to some reports, Wolfowitz made the claim of a Florida-based al-Qaeda because one of the 11 September hijackers had trained at a Florida flight school – hardly hard evidence of an active cell. His department has since admitted that it has no ‘intelligence that al-Qaeda has a headquarters in Jacksonville or anywhere else in Florida’ (11).

In June 2002, US General John Keane claimed that al-Qaeda had been successfully ‘reduced to small groups hiding in the mountains’ of Pakistan, after being forced out of Afghanistan. ‘There is no longer a safe haven for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan…There are no base camps left, there are no training camps left’, said Keane, claiming that ‘the few al-Qaeda fighters who remain’ were desperately trying to ‘establish a safe haven in Pakistan’ (12).

But now the US authorities claim that al-Qaeda is all over the world. According to anti-terror intelligence officials, al-Qaeda members are setting up ‘super cells, in locations stretching from North Africa to South-East Asia’ (13) – while one military official claims that ‘[al-Qaeda networks] are everywhere, from Brussels to Bagram’ (14).

From North Africa to South-East Asia and from Brussels to Bagaram? Al-Qaeda has come a long way in the two months since General John Keane said its ‘few remaining fighters’ were scrabbling around in the mountains of Pakistan.

Let’s hope the US authorities haven’t overlooked Scotland, where self-confessed al-Qaeda supporter David Allison has been upsetting Americans at the Edinburgh Festival by handing out leaflets calling for the murder of US civilians. Allison, who hails from Dundee, describes himself as a ‘political green with Hindu religious beliefs’, and claims to be part of ‘Al-Qaeda Scotland’ (15).

He is no doubt a crank, but then so are many of those who claim to act on behalf of al-Qaeda – from British shoe bomber Richard Reid who tried to blow up a transatlantic flight in December 2001, to American teenager Charles Bishop who flew a small plane into a Florida skyscraper in January 2002, to the so-called ‘dirty bomber’ Jose Padilla, who FBI officials now admit is ‘small fish’ with ‘no ties to al-Qaeda members’ (16).

There may be nutcases all over the world who try to give their senseless actions some meaning by linking themselves to al-Qaeda – but that’s not the same as al-Qaeda ‘super cells’ springing up in every continent, preparing to pounce on America. Or perhaps Rumsfeld really will send special forces to Edinburgh to take out the likes of David Allison… ?

The US authorities also seem undecided over whether al-Qaeda is actually a threat. When an al-Qaeda spokesman claimed in June 2002 that bin Laden’s network was still ‘98 percent intact’, he was ridiculed by US officials. ‘We felt we have had a significant impact on their ability to perform, command and control’, said US Colonel Roger King (17).

On the claims that al-Qaeda was about to launch attacks on America, King said: ‘We don’t feel that they can effectively do that with their bodies of forces at this time.’ (18) ‘We have broken their will’, declared General John Keane (19).

But in the same week, other US officials warned of a new threat of ‘radical international jihad’, with General Tommy Franks claiming that ‘al-Qaeda has not lost its will to conceive, plan and execute terrorist operations worldwide’. ‘They’re still around and they’re still scary, make no mistake’, said one US commander.

At the end of July 2002, Hafez Al-Mirazi, head of the Al-Jazeera TV network, said US officials were seriously ‘exaggerating al-Qaeda’s capabilities’ – claiming that all the talk of impending attacks remind him of ‘weather forecasters predicting a coming ice storm that never arrives’ (20). ‘It’s a sad fact that this kind of coverage has the effect of making people fear for their safety, making them more willing to tolerate government restrictions on civil liberties’, Al-Mirazi added (21).

US officials can’t even agree on the basics of the al-Qaeda network – like who’s in charge. ‘Bin Laden no longer running al-Qaeda’, said a headline in June 2002, as US intelligence agents claimed that ‘bin Laden has ceased actively directing al-Qaeda operations’ (22). According to Rumsfeld, ‘If he were active we would know it. We would have some visible sense of it, which we haven’t seemed to have had.’ (23)

But in July 2002, a US intelligence expert claimed that not only is bin Laden ‘alive and kicking’, but he ‘is very much in control of his people, of the activities of the elite network that answer to him or admire him…. He has maintained communication with his supporters’ (24).

Now, according to an NBC News report on 13 August 2002, the USA is ‘changing its theory on bin Laden’s fate’, with ‘more and more converts [in the Pentagon] to the “He’s dead” school’ (25).

So is al-Qaeda 200-strong or 30,000-strong? Is it holed up in Pakistan or does it have bases all over America, Europe and Asia? Is it still headed by bin Laden or is bin Laden dead?

And how can Rumsfeld launch a worldwide war against remaining al-Qaeda members when the US authorities seem unclear about basic facts? Maybe that is the point. America’s new secret war against al-Qaeda cells is a desperate response to the lack of real success in the war on terror.

It seems that the less success America has in Afghanistan, the more it needs to expand the war further and further. It started with the axis of evil in January 2002, where President Bush claimed that Iraq, Iran and North Korea were a threat to the world. In May 2002, Syria, Libya and Cuba were added to the list. In early June 2002, Bush claimed that ‘terrorism cells in countries that make up close to one third of the globe must be actively sought and dismantled’. And now Rumsfeld wants to kickstart a secret war ‘across the world’ (even acting in states ‘without their knowledge’) to combat an enemy that is apparently everywhere, even though US forces have been unable to locate it in its heartlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Rumsfeld’s latest plans tell us little about al-Qaeda, but reveal much about the out-of-control nature of the war on terror. American Secret Services – coming soon to a state near you.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: After 11 September

War against what?, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) Special forces may see new role, New York Times, 12 August 2002

(2) Special forces may see new role, New York Times, 12 August 2002

(3) ‘US: substantial number of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan’, Reuters, 5 June 2002

(4) FBI: just 200 hardcore al-Qaeda, Rebecca Carr, Palm Beach Post, 27 July 2002

(5) FBI: just 200 hardcore al-Qaeda, Rebecca Carr, Palm Beach Post, 27 July 2002

(6) 5000 in US suspected of ties to al-Qaeda, Bill Gertz, Washington Times, 11 July 2002

(7) 5000 in US suspected of ties to al-Qaeda, Bill Gertz, Washington Times, 11 July 2002

(8) Al-Qaeda’s agents still a threat in 60 nations, Giles Whittel, The Times (London), 22 May 2002

(9) Officials debunk report of Florida cell, UPI News, 5 July 2002

(10) Officials debunk report of Florida cell, UPI News, 5 July 2002

(11) Officials debunk report of Florida cell, UPI News, 5 July 2002

(12) US says al-Qaeda seeking haven, Patrick Quinn, Washington Post, 26 May 2002

(13) Al-Qaeda forming new cells worldwide, Mike Boettcher, CNN, 31 July 2002

(14) Terror network fragmented, but it’s also ‘everywhere, from Brussels to Bagram’, Jonathan Weisman, USA Today, 25 June 2002

(15) Outrage as bin Laden supporter targets city, Duncan Roberts, Edinburgh Evening News, 31 July 2002

(16) Officials downplay terror suspect, Christopher Newton, Newsday, 13 August 2002

(17) US dismisses al-Qaeda claim that network is ‘98 percent intact’, Rory McCarthy, Guardian, 25 June 2002

(18) US dismisses al-Qaeda claim that network is ‘98 percent intact’, Rory McCarthy, Guardian, 25 June 2002

(19) US dismisses al-Qaeda claim that network is ‘98 percent intact’, Rory McCarthy, Guardian, 25 June 2002

(20) Newsman doubts al-Qaeda capabilities, James J Napoli, The Oregonian, 26 July 2002

(21) Newsman doubts al-Qaeda capabilities, James J Napoli, The Oregonian, 26 July 2002

(22) Bin Laden ‘no longer running’ al-Qaeda says US, James Doran and Michael Evans, The Times, 5 June 2002

(23) Bin Laden ‘no longer running’ al-Qaeda says US, James Doran and Michael Evans, The Times, 5 June 2002

(24) ‘Osama bin Laden alive: US expert’, Times of India, 22 July 2002

(25) US changing theory on bin Laden’s fate, Robert Windrem and Tammy Kupperman, NBC News, 13 August 2002

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