Baghdad's fall will damage al-Qaida

Saturday, February 1, 2003

By Austin Bay

Know your enemy.

In 2003, America knows a lot more about al-Qaida than it did on Sept. 11, 2001. We've a clearer strategic picture of al-Qaida's goals and methods. Captured terror kingpins have spilled their guts. Videotapes found in Afghani caves have helped stop al-Qaida operations in Southeast Asia. Electronic eavesdroppers monitor al-Qaida chatter.

If you know your enemy, the strategic challenge is to use that knowledge to force him to fight on your terms. It's even better if that fight on your terms is a fight he cannot refuse.

Strategy is always about applying one's own strength to an opponent's weakness. Al-Qaida's historical pattern is to wait patiently, for years if necessary, and carefully prepare a terror operation until it's certain of success. Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, with little pressure on its hidden network (succored by the Taliban, Wahhabi petro-dollars and, yes, Iraq), al-Qaida could take its time to spring a vicious surprise attack -- surprise and visionary viciousness being its strengths and the gist of its "asymmetric" challenge to America's "symmetric" power. "Fear us, America," was the message, "because al-Qaida chooses the time and place of battle, and when we do you are defenseless."

Sept. 11's strategic ambush sought to force America to fight on al-Qaida's terms, to suck the United States into a no-win Afghan war, to bait the United States into launching a "crusade against Islam." Osama bin Laden believed he possessed an edge in ideological appeal, "faith based" strength against what he perceived as U.S. decadence. U.S. failure in Afghanistan would ignite a global "clash of civilizations" pitting all Muslims against America.

Bin Laden's strategy flopped, for a slew of reasons. Chief among them, American liberty remains an ideologically powerful idea. The United States also pulled an "asymmetric" military move of sorts, using Green Beret-guided Afghan allies and hi-tech air power to topple the Taliban.

Since the loss of its Afghan base, al-Qaida has experienced extraordinary pressure. Time to plan is squeezed. The United States has used diplomacy, police work, better intel and military presence to exert the pressure.

Al-Qaida has attempted to adapt, with talk of a sleeper cell strategy while aggressively attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Which leads to the subject of decisive U.S. military action against Iraq and its role in defeating al-Qaida.

The massive American build-up around Iraq serves as a baited trap that al-Qaida cannot ignore. Failure to react to the pending American attack would demonstrate al-Qaida's impotence. For the sake of their own reputation (as well as any notion of divine sanction), al-Qaida's cadres must show CNN and Al Jazeera they are still capable of dramatic endeavor.

This ain't theory. Al-Qaida's leaders and fighters know it, and the rats are coming out of their alleys. In Afghanistan, several hundred al-Qaida fighters in the Pakistani border region have gone on the offensive. They specifically link their attacks to America's pending assault on Baghdad. Al-Qaida terror teams are reportedly moving into Western Europe.

Al-Qaida's offensive thrust in Afghanistan produces open targets for the 82nd Airborne Division. Moving and communicating terror cells are terror cells more vulnerable to police detection. Moreover, the terrorists are no longer operating on their time line, but on America's time line. The United States creates a situation where Al-Qaida either loses ideological credibility or must risk operations during a time of focused U.S. intelligence activity.

But the big blow to al-Qaida will be the loss of Baghdad. Baghdad is a counter-terror intelligence trove. Saddam's fall will loosen knowledgeable tongues. Al-Qaida will have fewer alleys to inhabit.

But the big loss will be access to Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. A weapons-of-mass-destruction spectacular is the kind of operation that can reverse al-Qaida's international propaganda decline.

That ain't theory, either. Al-Qaida's leaders know it, which is why they seek nukes and nerve gas. It's why American strategists who know al-Qaida know the axis of evil must be utterly broken.

Austin Bay is a syndicated columnist who specializes in military and foreign affairs.

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