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As al-Qaeda’s influence grows, Dr. Michael Rubin tells Robert de la Poer that the Western countries must co-operate and continue to take the lead in the fight against Jihadist terrorists.
RP: Do you think there has been enough international co-ordination of law enforcement and intelligence efforts to attack the logistics and financing arms of Jihadist terrorist networks since 9/11? Who should be taking the lead in this fight?
MR: If there is one success story since 9/11, it has been the efforts to combat terror finance. If military action is sometimes akin to conducting surgery with an axe, efforts to dry up sources of funding are like wielding a scalpel.
While many diplomats and academics would say the United Nations should take the lead in the fight, to put any international organisation in charge of counterterrorism would be to lose the war. International organisations have shirked their responsibility to define terrorism. Too many countries seeking to apply an a la carte definition to conform to their own national sympathies stalemate the conversation. Hence, Turkey swears that the PKK is a terrorist organisation but that Hamas is not, and Iran labels Jundullah a terrorist entity but believes Hezbollah to be legitimate.
It may not be an ideal solution for those who embrace moral relativity, but Western countries will maintain the lead in this fight. Only they have the will and mechanisms to fight terrorism effectively, be it through financial channels or with more kinetic means. It is trendy to speak of China’s rise. Already, opponents of financial warfare against the Islamic Republic of Iran argue that such measures are unwise given Beijing’s opposition. As much as the West debates how to manage the rise of China today, I suspect in ten years we will be debating how to manage its decline. When push comes to shove, I suspect a decade or two from now, the driving force in the fight against terror finance will still be in the West.
RP: Are national jurisdictional boundaries hampering efforts to track terrorist finance and personnel? How can such red tape be overcome?
MR: Certainly, jurisdictional boundaries hamper efforts to track terror finance, but these will not disappear in our lifetime. Quiet diplomacy has worked. Within democracies, worries about reputation risk also have import. Within Western democracies, however, I am increasingly worried by leaks which undermine the fight against terror finance. True to Parkinson’s Law, bureaucracies continue to grow. Too often, however, bored or attention-seeking bureaucrats leak the secrets of the counter-terror campaign to the press. Too many journalists believe the drive for the scoop absents them from the responsibility to protect the lives of innocents. The sheer size of the bureaucracies suggest that the red tape will remain, although perhaps small numbers of officials acting quietly and informally can chalk up some real victories.
RP: You have long been an advocate of targeted strikes against individuals as a tool for achieving strategic ends. Do you think the killing of Osama bin Laden has proved your argument or simply highlighted al-Qaeda’s decentralised nature?
MR: I advocated targeted assassinations for two reasons: firstly when they can avert more widespread war by targeting command and control, especially when most of the enemy’s military are innocent conscripts; and, secondly because they avert the need for a wider military action through swaths of territory in which large numbers of civilians would become collateral damage. Perhaps if men like Bashar al-Assad, Hassan Nasrallah, or Qasim Sulaymani thought they might be risking their own life and limb when they ordered their forces to attack civilians, they might be more reticent.
Not only the Osama bin Laden hit, but also the exponential increase in Predator strikes and targeted assassinations, and the increasing emphasis on special operations under President Obama, have justified the argument. As the centre of Jihadi militancy in Pakistan shifts from the mountainous tribal areas along the Durand Line to the densely populated areas in Punjab and Karachi, I would suspect that targeted assassinations will become the standard way of war through the next decade.
RP: Al-Zawahiri announced in February that (at least some elements of) al-Shabaab have officially joined al-Qaeda. Given AQ’s loose organisation, do you think such affiliations have any real significance or are just nominal?
MR: The fact that al-Shabaab is affiliating with al-Qaeda should suggest the idiocy of efforts by some UN officials and, more recently, by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, to incorporate them into some broader-based Somali government. At the same time, al-Qaeda’s co-option of al-Shabaab should reinforce the danger of ceding any territory to the group. Al-Qaeda loves a vacuum, and it is national security malpractice in the extreme to cede them one. Al-Shabaab demonstrates the short-sightedness of fleeing Somalia and believing state failure did not matter.
RP: How do you see AQ evolving under al-Zawahiri’s leadership?
MR: I see AQ as a loose network, and I doubt the Az-Zawahiri will be able to reverse that. What I worry about now is how leadership challenges will play out. On one hand, Az-Zawahiri will have to attempt a significant attack to demonstrate the relevance of the central organisation. On the other hand, the leaders of al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or al-Qaeda in Iraq will plot major terror operations in the West to demonstrate that they are the marquee franchise.
Certainly, I worry about the future of Egypt. There is only a short-leap between the ideology of the An-Nour party and that of al-Qaeda. As the new, more radical elements in Egypt begin their drive to transform society, Zawahiri may find his homeland fertile grounds for recruitment.
RP: To what extent do you think the Arab Spring has destabilised the Middle East and opened the door to more radical influences and even governments? Do you think we will see a long-term trend towards more conservative anti-Western governments across the region and can anything be done to prevent this?
MR: The Arab Spring certainly has turned chilly, and the future does not bode well. Egypt’s greatest export, after all, is its school teachers and, just as in the 1950s and 1960s, as Egypt radicalises they might either become engines for ideological indoctrination or, conversely, no longer welcome in oil-rich states so that an important source of remittances dries up.
There is a silver lining to the Islamists’ rise in Egypt, however. It is easy to be in opposition and to promise people the world. Neo-socialism reigns supreme in Egypt today. Ninety per cent of Egyptians believe the state should guarantee jobs, salaries, housing, and education, and set prices in the market. That might be the stuff of a good campaign, but it is a recipe for economic disaster. The worst policy the West can engage in would be to free the Islamists from accountability for their decisions. If Europe and the United States forgive Egyptian debts and provide foreign aid, we are in effect bailing out the Muslim Brotherhood for their poor decision. Perhaps the best way forward would be to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to fail while at the same time working to ensure the next elections are set in stone.
At the same time, Western diplomats must once and for all resolve their belief that democracy requires an even playing field. It is naive to assume any such things exist. We prioritise multilateralism or, as Obama’s aides call it, “leading from behind,” but we fail to recognise the agendas that even our allies in the region have. Qatar, for example, has stopped at nothing to fund the most Islamist elements in Libya and Egypt. The net result is that the already besieged liberals have the least resources available to them. Perhaps it’s time – covertly if need be – to support those who are worthy of our support, while at the same time we should stop treating aid as an entitlement.
RP: Recent reports have shown that African countries like Nigeria, Somalia and Libya are becoming training grounds for Jihadist militants – some travelling from countries like the UK. Is there a danger these countries could become lawless breeding grounds for a new generation of extremists, and how can this problem be contained?
MR: We are still learning the lessons of 9/11: we cannot afford to allow al-Qaeda any safe-haven. The al-Qaeda theoretician Abu Musab al-Suri has argued for a decentralised structure, whereas his Jihadi ideologue Abu Bakr Naji has preached the importance of holding territory. Ceding any territory, in Africa or elsewhere, simply allows al-Qaeda to satisfy its two chief strategists at once. The Africa connection impacts security in other ways as well. European security services should be very concerned by the growing involvement of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in the drug trade, and its reach from Mozambique to the Mediterranean.
Also undercutting Western security is the tendency of some countries – France and Italy, for example – to pay ransoms to release al-Qaeda-held hostages. Incentivising terrorism will never enable its defeat.
RP: Do you think that military action by Israel (and possibly the US) against Iranian targets is inevitable at this stage? What are the likely implications for the region if such strikes do go ahead?
MR: There is no chance of US action against Iranian targets under the Obama administration. Diplomats are like addicted gamblers – no matter how much in the hole they are, they convince themselves that with just one more round, they can redeem everything.
I’m a historian by training, and so I’m paid to predict the past and I only get that right about 50 per cent of the time, so I am only confident that I can predict an Israeli strike accurately only after it happens. That said, we can all agree on the drawbacks if a strike occurs: redoubled Iranian efforts to gain the bomb – this time with the sympathy of much of the world; perhaps mining the Persian Gulf to send insurance prices sky high on shipping; proxy action against the southern Iraqi oil fields – if the Qods Force can knock off two million barrels per day of Iraqi oil, the Islamic Republic can laugh all the way to the bank.
There will be renewed conflict between Israel and Lebanon either as Israel tries pre-emptively to counter Hezbollah missiles, or as Hezbollah fires them. Iranian terrorism will be experienced worldwide. Other countries might also take advantage of the chaos for their own aims. For example, the United Arab Emirates might seek to take advantage of the confused aftermath of any strike to seize the Tonb islands and Abu Musa, long occupied by Iran. Possession is nine-tenths of the law.
Still, even if everyone agrees on the consequences of any strike, we do need to recognise that threat assessments differ. If Europe worries about the efficacy of multilateral diplomacy and the preservation of the NPT, and America worries about the strategic implications of a nuclear weapons-capable Iran, we need to recognise that many in Israel worry see the Iranian challenge as an existential threat. Certainly, some Israelis publicly disagree with this assessment, but consensus is rare in a democracy.
Ultimately, though, we need to have a conversation about the day after. Any strike will delay Iran’s nuclear progress, but will not stop it. It is a tremendous abuse of any military to simply kick the can down the road because policymakers will not address the fundamental problem which is the regime itself.
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