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Mohawk: Why no follow-up attacks by al-Qaeda?

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Twenty nine months have passed since the horrific events of 9/11 when airplanes crashed in to the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field en route to Washington, D.C. Of course, if someone like Timothy McVeigh can load a truck with fertilizer and diesel fuel and blow up a federal building, determined terrorists can certainly do damage, and over time there can be no question that someone will do something pretty dramatic of this nature. Even so, it is intriguing to ask why al-Qaeda hasn't orchestrated more attacks in North America. Their leaders threatened to do so. Why haven't they?

There is no question that subsequent security measures have been able to eliminate box cutters on airline flights, but the most effective blow was to root out the Taliban and al-Qaeda from Afghanistan and to mount an international police effort to find and arrest al-Qaeda leadership. Much information has been gleaned about al-Qaeda since the attacks. Afghanistan was invaded, individual suspected terrorists have been arrested and interrogated, a few have been assassinated, and a lot of people spied upon.

Osama bin Laden was an important figure in the mujahudeen struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was a training ground for radicals from a number of countries: Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Tajikstan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Iraq, and, of course, Saudi Arabia, among others. Bin Laden founded al-Qaeda in 1988 for the purpose of supporting the establishment of a pan-Islamic Caliphate and to drive westerners out of Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. The list of known and suspected bombings and assassinations engineered and/or funded by the organization is long and includes bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and the USS Cole, and a planned but aborted assassination of President Clinton in the Philippines in 1995. Other bombings in Riyadh and Casablanca have drawn fierce criticism of al-Qaeda by former supporters and allies in radical Islamic movements.

Eight leaders of Egypt's Al-Jana'ah Al-Islamiyah, issued a book in January (2004), "The Strategy and Bombings of Al-Qaeda: Errors and Perils," which is a denunciation of al-Qaeda's actions. Eight leaders of this group assert that these latter bombings killed or harmed people who were not part of the enemy and thus urged these people to unite against al-Qaeda and its cause. The perpetrators of these bombings intended to do good things, these authors say, but they did not do good things and did not advance their own cause. In fact, they did indefensible things and harmed their cause.

The book urges that al-Qaeda's actions and strategy from the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 to the bombings in Riyadh in 2003 unified the people in the targeted countries to oppose and harm Islamic movements everywhere, especially in Afghanistan where the U.S. and its allies have essentially destroyed the Taliban. Al-Qaeda, they say, was born in Afghanistan and its fortunes were linked to the Taliban. The book addresses an important issue in the world of Islam: the U.S., they say, acted on its own strategic interests, not in an attempt to advance a religious war against Islam.

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Al-Qaeda is much better understood today than it was a few years ago. It is a loose amalgam of fundamentalist groups that share an ideology of fundamentalist Islam and a hatred of the West. Such an enemy cannot be lured onto a battlefield where it can be defeated with a show of "shock and awe." The idea the U.S. is waging war to destroy Islam energizes these groups and the fact that a related fundamentalist group - even one like Al-Jana'ah al-Islamiyah which renounced violence in 1997 - is putting forward a careful, well studied and thorough critique of al-Qaeda's tactics and the unintended consequences of their actions is important. In 2001, very few in that world had anything negative to say about a strategy which shocked the world with a view of thousands of innocent people murdered on world television.

Many of the people who were considered top leaders in al-Qaeda have been caught or killed since 9/11, including Khalid Sheik Mohammad who was a mastermind in the WTC attacks in 1993 and 2001, and Ramzi Binalshibh who was linked to Mohammed Atta, the individual who piloted a jetliner into one of the towers. These people have been carefully interrogated about what they know about any possible "sleeper cells" in the United States, but while there have been arrests of people who were planning to blow up the Los Angeles Airport and an attempt to light a shoe bomb, the closest thing to "cells" involved a group of men from Lackawanna who had visited al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. The evidence against these men was strong enough to send them to prison but did not produce convincing proof that any of them were planning specific acts of terror.

The two most famous members of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahari, are thought to be at large. Egyptians loom large in the organization. Dr. Zawahari, an Egyptian, is said to be the "brains" of the outfit and has issued calls to their followers to kill Americans, civilian or otherwise, wherever and whenever possible. If he had the ability to cause such attacks on American soil, he would have done so. He is a follower of Syed Qutb who was executed for treason in 1966 and whose radical reinterpretation of the Koran has inspired much of what is known as militant Islam. The Wahabbi, the ultra-conservative sect that dominates Saudi Arabia, considers him a heretic.

The fact that there is growing principled opposition to al-Qaeda from militants and former militants in Egypt may signal a re-evaluation of the high-stakes and reckless tactics of al-Qaeda among people who, only two years ago, thought they saw a warrior leadership which could challenge the West, especially the United States, and restore what they define as the dignity of Islamic civilization. Almost lost in the conversation was Osama bin Laden's early assertion that the attacks on the WTC were intended to draw America into a war in Afghanistan where, he thought, his fighters would do to them what they had done to the Soviets. Little evidence has emerged that he spent much time or fortune placing "sleeper cells" in the United States despite significant success gathering intelligence by police agencies in numerous Muslim countries. Perhaps the reason there have been no catastrophic attacks is that al-Qaeda does not possess the capacity to make it happen.

Transforming Afghanistan into a state hostile to militant Islam is an important step in America's security. Maintaining vigilance against extremist groups of every stripe has become a way of life in the industrialized countries. Because of the ability of very small groups with even limited resources to commit acts of mass murder, it will always be so.

John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New York at Buffalo.