From Tragedy to Triumph
We ought not fight them at all, unless we determine to fight them forever.
A Stop for Coffee
all i wanted was a cup of hot coffee. A café latte was being brewed for me at the Cosi coffee shop at the corner of 3rd and Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. A few blocks from the United States Capitol, I had arrived early to take my newest employee, Beverly, to the offices of the House of Representative and Senate intelligence committees. It was a clear, warm morning and Beverly was excited to be working for a small anti- terrorism firm in its secretive offices in a Georgetown neighborhood. We had arrived early and had planned to discuss her duties as chief of staff for the small offi ce with its ten employees and interns. The Special Readiness Services International really had one mission and one contract: to analyze and educate the Special Operations Forces in the tactics, techniques, and procedures of the al- Qaeda or ga ni za tion.
It was 8:30 a.m. when the cashier handed me my change and two cups of coffee. The television on a wall near the counter was on CNN that morning. The café had added it for the congressional staffers to watch the votes in the House and the Senate on C-SPAN. Above the din I heard the quiet murmuring of the anchorman, but something was wrong with the words as they reached my ears: “. . . no one knows what kind of aircraft it was that hit the building . . .” These words were all wrong for TV news. I looked to the right and saw the smoking tower of the World Trade Center complex. The air was clear in NYC—a bright sunny morning with fantastic visibility. How could a small airplane hit that building? Was it a sightseeing helicop ter or a light airplane? From the ground view it was hard to know how bad the fire atop the building was.
I said to Beverly, “You know a B-24 hit the Empire State Building in 1945?” We watched for a few minutes and listened to the news announcers speculate on the crash. It seemed like a small disaster until I heard the words “the FAA is reporting an aircraft has been hijacked.” That piqued my attention. Just a few months earlier I was a subject matter expert on terrorist hijacking of aircraft. At my last military posting we ran hijacking and terrorism survival courses and simulations as the shadowy terrorist group in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda. It was difficult to hijack an aircraft in the United States, I thought. A moment later I would be proven wrong.
The aircraft came in from the right of the screen and struck the building. That instant I could not speak. I knew who was flying this. My first conscious thought was, You did it . . . you said you would take it down and you’ve done it. I instinctively made one calculated gesture . . . I struck the “5” speed key on my cell phone and called navy Petty Offi cer Brad Michaels, my former deputy at the SERE’s Advanced Terrorism, Abduction and Hostage Survival School in Coronado. Brad was in bed and, after having received excited calls about terrorist attacks from me over the years, he had learned to put the phone on answering machine. The year before it was the USS Cole attack at
3:00 a.m. He never forgave me for waking his wife and son. The answering machine came on as the fireball at the WTC tower billowed outward, raining sparkles of flame, debris, and the remains of humanity. I let the machine beep and then screamed into the phone for him to get up. He snatched the phone up and asked what was wrong. . . . I could not tell him. I was stunned. All I could do was shout, “CNN! CNN! CNN!”
He held on and a second later shouted back into the phone, “What the hell is happening!”
I told him what I knew the instant the airplane appeared: “It’s al-Qaeda . . . it’s a restrike of the WTC!”
He hung up and went to his offi ce at the North Island Naval Air Station, where we would call each other in coordination. One of the first things to know about a terrorist attack is that one needs a line of communications, a lifeline far from the incident to maintain perspective and collect intelligence.
Dozens of us stood transfixed at the café watching the macabre spectacle. Minutes later cell phones and beepers went off all around us. The Capitol staff s were simultaneously being recalled to the Hill by the sergeant of arms. The staff members quickly started flowing out of the shop and back up Pennsylvania to the congressional office buildings like great swarms of geese. I told Beverly we needed to move. “Where?” she said. I replied, “New York City, of course. This is the greatest act of terrorism in history and we are going to help.”
We drove rapidly down past the Washington Monument. Most of the world had not responded to the attack and tourists were still strolling on the beautiful morning. I put on National Public Radio. They were reporting on the response to the attack in NYC and the reports of hijacked aircraft. I stopped at the intersection of Inde pen dence Avenue next to the Lincoln Memorial. As I listened I saw a silver airplane coming from the west near the Sheraton at the Navy Annex. It was descending in a smooth glide path as it passed south of Arlington Cemetery. I casually told Beverly it looked like they were rerouting airplanes away from the Potomac and over northern Virginia. Then the aircraft descended in a smooth line down past the rim of the Pentagon and exploded. As it did, I thought of a navy expression I remembered from a battle I once experienced with an Iranian patrol boat: “Cruise Missile Inbound.” The aircraft was a human- guided weapon, and once the fl ames rolled over the top of the building it created a huge black cloud. Beverly saw it but did not recognize what had happened. “What’s that?” she asked calmly.
“We are under attack! A nationwide attack! That’s the Pentagon! It just got hit!”
I shot the car forward and spiraled onto Memorial Bridge; within sixty seconds we rolled to a stop in front of a police car a few hundred yards away from the furiously burning Pentagon crash site. I gave Beverly the keys and told her to go back to Georgetown and call me every thirty minutes. She drove off and I ran into the fray, checking victims as they emerged. I ended up following the orders of a feisty army combat nurse who had survived the attack and accidentally found herself thrust into command of the medical evacuation effort at the crash site. Until the northern Virginia fire departments and disaster teams arrived and organized themselves, the few hundred civilians, servicemen and -women, and first responders in a lone ambulance were the rescue party at what we dubbed the Battle of the Pentagon. I spent hours in and out of the building, moving the provisional field hospital we set up and prepared for more victims. Once the fire had consumed the building to the point where a section collapsed, even they had diffi culty entering. We then organized the stretcher teams to evacuate the numerous bodies we expected to be found. I received calls from all around the world while working; my former SERE school commanding officer called and wanted a status report for the United States Commander of the Naval Fleet in San Diego, Beverly called to tell me that the WTC complex had collapsed, but I refused to believe it, and Brad called to give me a count of the hijacked aircraft. We were missing one, but a few minutes later we would be informed it had crashed. All the while as I danced with chaos it was clear to me who had perpetrated this attacks. This airplane-turned-suicide-cruise-missile was specifi c revenge for the 1998 cruise missile attack on a terrorist camp in the Afghanistan Pakistan mountains, Zawar Kili—the famous al- Badr camp that had been built during the Afghanistan war against the Soviets for the Arab mujahideen. The group running the al- Badr terrorist center was called al-Qaeda and its leader was a radical Saudi Arabian dissident named Osama bin Laden.
Thus the begins the story of the vector of an ideological plague. This plague was violently injected into the bloodstream of America by nineteen men who hijacked four airliners and struck deep into the American psyche. Their mission had consumed the hearts of the men who did it and was calculated to consume all of America and poison the well of the billion innocent Muslims. I ended that day of days feeling the burning pain in my heart. My family had spent nearly a century defending America, and the massive failure made the pain insufferable. My nation had been attacked. Thousands of innocent civilians were dead. Hundreds of rescuers were engulfed in fl ame and steel. Now the reckoning must come. The men who had planned this mission had only one option left for them no matter how long it would take. This battle was a blood fi ght to the death. Bin Laden would die at our hands and quickly. Or so we all thought.
Al- Qaeda’s Ideology of Terror Unleashed
by 2002 aq’s operational terrorist forces in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia were executing a post-9/11 strategy to keep the pressure on the West and to incite a pan- Islamic jihad. A Mania of revenge and fear was permeating America and Europe, and AQ bet that it was as good a time as ever to keep feeding the beast that lashed out wildly at Muslims. Around the world the AQ and its ideological affiliates started to strike regularly in a series of suicide attacks at major cities and tourist destinations. First terrorists in Bali, Indonesia, struck Western tourists and left 202 dead; then the Madrid subway system was devastated, with 191 dead; then attacks in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Saudi 1Arabia, London, Russia, Mumbai, and Algeria left almost a thousand more littered in their wake. Numerous attempts at suicide bombings were foiled or unsuccessful, including the attempted bombing of an airliner when the AQ convert Richard Reid attempted to explode explosives in his shoe, attacks on churches in Strasbourg, France, and Paris and a foiled chemical attack in England. OBL’s philosophy of training and inspiring smaller, unaffi liated groups of “self-starting” jihadis was taking root in Europe.
Most surprisingly, in the midst of these pressure tactics the United States was slacking up in its pursuit of the AQ leadership and the Taliban. By August 2002 the Bush administration was preparing an invasion of Iraq, which at the close of 2003 was proving a disaster. While Iraq burned, other resources were being expended in areas that seemed of little value other than to bring more AQ recruits out to fight America worldwide. In 2006 the United States engineered the invasion of Somalia with an Ethiopian Christian army. Because a few members of the coalition government had ties to al-Qaeda, America unwisely and quickly toppled the Islamic Courts Union regime that had brought a measure of calm and stability to the country for the first time in thirteen years. This unleashed the Shabaab terror group. There was also much strong language about attacking the Shiite Muslim regime in Iran. The administration pressed Israel into a disastrous onslaught in Lebanon that killed over one hundred Israeli soldiers a thousand civilians and destroyed Lebanon’s fledgling economy. The loss gave the terrorists sponsoring Hezbollah increased prestige. All of these actions, supported or encouraged by President George W. Bush, created what OBL thought was an ideological backlash that could only support his goals.
Bin Laden was a happy man. He had reason to be. For more than eight years OBL and his Taliban allies were left virtually alone in their sanctuary. The American method of operations was becoming clear on the Afghan- Pakistani border. Where the Americans met Taliban combat forces in the field they pinned them down and then would pommel them with air strikes, but this method inflicted grievous casualties and alienated the very people needed to defeat the guerillas. The Americans were also adopting the Israeli method of selective assassination of key leadership using Predator and Reaper drones and the occasional air strike inside the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. On occasion, the Pakistanis would swarm in with a new general in charge, get slaughtered, and cut deals in order to have a chance to lick their wounds.
Af ghan i stan suffered from a passionate neglect by the Bush administration. Every effort was going into breaking the four winos of the Iraqi insurgency. Afghanistan was left to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. These forces were relatively small and did not appear to operate well or share intelligence. They appeared to be marking time until America won in Iraq and then could turn its full attention on Afghanistan. This was strategic folly. It gave AQ over seven years to regroup and return to executing its strategic vision to destabilize the near by enemies of Pakistan and the Middle Eastern nations while striking and punishing the distant enemies of America, Europe, and their allies.
OBL has defied all odds. He has created a physical sanctuary in Pakistan that appears impregnable. More important, he has created a viral new ideology. Some call it al-Qaedaism; I call it bin Ladenism, which, like all good social diseases, spreads fastest by direct contact. The host itself is an invisible carrier and loyal missionary. While the physical war goes on, the war for the hearts of millions of new recruits is being waged on the battlefield of the mind. It is here OBL has held the advantage, and it is here we need to take it away from him.
The safe haven given to al-Qaeda on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border was not what bin Laden expected, but after the rapid disintegration of the Taliban it was just what he needed. OBL had envisaged a rampantly angry American force descending by parachute as they had done in Qandahar early in October 2001. He had spent years preparing his fighting force in the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” to fight the Americans in a ground war similar to that of the Soviets. Bin Laden saw his men in Afghanistan standing up and fi ghting in the face of the Americans with his Afghan Taliban brothers. AQ had run Taliban training camps, developed terrorist and land warfare curricula, manned anti-aircraft guns, and supported hijackings of an Indian airliner as practice for their mission against America.
The Americans would come, OBL knew. His attack in NYC would ensure it. He did not calculate that he would be pushed into Pakistan so fast, but it did not matter so long as he had his base of support building in the Pakistan FATA. Since 1980 AQ had been cooperating, enriching, and sharing their ideals and ideology with the poor Pakistani tribesmen of the FATA. His men had blood ties, as their local wives were from the provinces; they had wed sisters of foreign fighters to the tribesmen in exchange. It was a model in miniature of what AQ believed was a spiritually based Islamic community made up of muhajiroun, emigres, or those who believed that spiritual excellence required them to emigrate away from “unclean” lands and live in one where the laws and people of Islam are unspoiled. In this case that was Afghanistan, until the “Crusaders” came and displaced them into the FATA region of Pakistan.
The most misunderstood portion of the war against AQ is: What does OBL fight for? The answer comes in many forms, most ignorant of both the man and his actions. For seven years I lectured hundreds of diplomats, intelligence officers, special operations soldiers, and common citizens on one simple fact that was lost after 9/11: bin Laden does not want to take over the world, topple America, or impose Islam on non-believers. Even he knows that it is his idealistic vision that could continue to inspire his followers centuries after his death. He has a noble goal worth fighting for. He wants to Re-establish a New Islamic Caliphate (NIC). The last Islamic Caliphate, stewarded by the Ottoman Empire, was ended in 1924 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It was a crushing blow to contemporary Muslim extremists, one of whose goals has always been to revive this pan- Muslim state. OBL relishes the challenge to resurrect the Caliphate. Iraq, until it fell to the traitorous ex- Ba’athist tribes, had given al-Qaida a central emirate from which to spread jihad—that gone, a new nation was being reborn in not just Afghanistan but also a militant Pakistan. For him, the ultimate goal is to fight for and create a New Islamic Caliphate—this one centered in Afghanistan and Pakistan . . . and in possession of nuclear weapons.
A future NIC with Pakistan’s atomic weapons at hand could dramatically speed up the pro cess of creating the bin Laden version of a new Islam. For those who cannot join him, the Internet allows them to fight and inspire recruits in all Muslim countries until they can meet up from border to border to border.
By 2006, with the newly motivated Pakistani Taliban at his hand, OBL realized the plan was unfolding altogether differently. Despite the setbacks in Iraq bin Laden sees the birth of the NIC spreading not from Baghdad, but from his sanctuary, into both Afghanistan to the west and Pakistan to the east.
A Most Dangerous Game:
The High Stakes of Failure
se nior fellow at the Center for a New American Security Steve Clemons once asked: What is the strategic rationale for continued combat operations in the War on Terror and Afghanistan in particular? Does America’s security require it to embark on a multidecade nation-building exercise in this specifi c nation? Granted, AQ needs to be brought to justice, but at what cost?
In 2007 conservative theorist Frederick W. Kagan claimed that the United States should spend “what ever it takes” on the war on terrorism. He also felt that the fact that terrorists are regenerating at our expense was inconsequential and would not change their rhetoric. Kagan wrote:
But honestly, the presence of American forces in any numbers in a Muslim land can serve as a recruiting tool. It doesn’t matter to the terrorists if there are 160,000 Americans in Iraq or 160—the propaganda about “United States occupation” will be just the same. It does matter if they can claim to have defeated us again.2
The boast of defeating America may sound true, except that one can clearly argue that the strategy under people like Kagan has yielded nothing short of increasing terrorism by an order of magnitude.
The tragicomic attitude of the political right was best and most accurately described by a Marine Corps lieutenant colo nel turned comic, Rob Riggle. He accurately described the American dilemma in Afghanistan and summarized the Kagan war policy on The Daily Show, where he mused:
In 2001, there was a memo—Bin Laden determined to attack United States from a safe haven in Afghanistan . . . Now, seven years and seven hundred billion dollars later, we get a new memo saying bin Laden determined to attack United States from a safe haven somewhere around Afghanistan . . . We are right back where we started. We could have gotten here by doing nothing.3
What are the dangers of leaving Afghanistan or the region as a failed state, weak and at the hands of the militants? It is not that we seek a position from which to dominate Central Asia, as AQ contends, or to topple an Islamic regime and impose Western de cadence, as the Taliban asserts, or even to control the crossroad of the trans-Afghanistan gas and oil pipeline. We entered this engagement in the pursuit of a criminal mass murderer and the followers of their philosophy. Period. Although we have not conducted ourselves in a way that has honored our grievance and demand for justice, that does not invalidate the true reason we have had to inject ourselves into South Asia and the rest of the Islamic world. In fact, the injustices and errors give us a window of opportunity to offer discussion and redress to those transgressions. All humor aside, the stakes for continued stagnation or inaction are dire. But American treasure could be far better spent reworking the frame in an arena they most fear, the war of ideas.
since the mission of countering the perverted ideology of AQ was largely ignored, the spread of its message has permeated a larger portion of the Muslim world in a way that could never have been imagined—particularly since the ill-starred invasion of Iraq. Now America is attempting to contain a fi re that is spreading outside of all controls. The stakes of a spread of Bin Laden-ism are serious and could include:
Potential loss of mainstream political control in Pakistan: The extremists in the FATA/NWFP (North-West Frontier Province) and Baluchistan of Pakistan are generating and exploiting political instability within the nation. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a dramatic use of suicide bombings, direct combat with the army, and seizure of whole provinces by armed militants have shown a remarkable downtrend to keeping Pakistan from devolving into a partial failed state. It is this point of instability that the extremists seek in order to propose their method of restoring order as an alternative. In as early as 2006 the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine listed Pakistan as number 9 of the top 10 nations on the Failed States Index. It had a precipitous drop from number 34 in just one year. This poll of 146 nations lists from worst to best for continued viability; regrettably, Afghanistan was number 11.4
Destabilization and resurrection of the Taliban in Afghan istan: The sole result that the irreconcilable extremists will accept is the return of the Taliban to absolute religious rule in Afghanistan. The continued armed attacks and suicide bombings are designed to ensure that the government of Afghan istan and NATO cannot off er the security that existed under the Taliban. This contrast in images of the “American- provoked” destabilizing peace and the “Islamic Taliban–style peace” is the entire basis of the message that is offered to the coreligionists. In this frame it is an attractive alternative for the common citizen, especially when compared to the American peace with the casualties suffered by aerial attacks and no real change on the ground in development or commerce.
Dramatic inroads to mainstream Takfir ideology in Islam: Despite the rejection of the tactics of terrorists by the majority of the Muslim world, AQ’s ideology of radicalism has been offered as an alternative to regimes that support American policy actions in the Muslim world. The mainstreaming of the Takfiri doctrine the practice of labeling Muslims as nonbelievers could never dilute its militancy, as bin Ladenism rejects all moderation in religion. Despite this doctrine’s being ruled as Heresy by the Muslim religious leaders, OBL seeks to make it a mainstream component of acceptable practice in Islam.
Destabilization of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: The arrival of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and dramatic terror incidents starting in 2005 in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have led to a period of destabilization. However, by 2006 this trend was reversed by a massive Saudi counter-ideology campaign. The results are still out, but the campaign, along with a brutal counter-terrorism campaign, did appear to break the main force behind AQAP and force them to merge with al-Qaeda in Yemen (AQY) in 2009. Should these groups gain power of influence due to a political crisis, such as the Israeli attack on Iran, the radicalization within the Kingdom could become overwhelming for the monarchy.
Political control of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the two holy shrines in Mecca and Medina: The ultimate goal of AQ is political and religious control over the Kingdom. Though it is a extremely remote possibility, if this was achieved they would have religious control over the spiritual destiny of over a billion and a half people. The entire movement of AQ is based on establishing a new Caliphate in which a new era of purity would reign over their variant of Islam. No goal, apart from acquiring the weapons to achieve this, is more important to OBL. It is assumed that this will be a multigenerational effort that will continue well past the death of Bin Laden.
Access to a nuclear arsenal: In an effort to gain power, prestige, and infl uence to intimidate and cause the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to cede power, the Takfiris ultimately need access to the Pakistani nuclear materials. They will work through subterfuge, direct attack, political seizure, or total destabilization and collapse of the state to achieve this goal. Pakistan, which exploded its first nuclear weapon in 1998, is said to have between thirty and fifty bombs of an explosive yield between one and fifteen kilotons.5 The fathers of the Pakistani nuclear program are alleged to have met with members of the AQ leadership and discussed the construction of nuclear weapons. In Pakistan the infiltration of the military and national security apparatus through religious beliefs is a more serious threat than a direct seizure of the weapons.
Excerpted from An End to Al-Qaeda by Malcolm Nance.
Copyright © 2010 by Malcolm Nance.
Published in February 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.