February 15, 2009

The Saharan Conundrum - Shifting Sands

Some important weekend reading courtesy of the NYT.

Nicholas Schmidle's portrait of violent extremism in the maghreb pretty much nails it as far as Londonstani is concerned. The six-page article is worth reading if you want to put a personality to the image of a young jihadi, and get a taste of where the "al Qaeda business model" might be going.

Schmidle has pieced together the back story to one young fighter, Sidi Ould Sidna, a young Mauritanian, charged with killing four French tourists in the town of Aleg.

"'Sidi wasn’t a thief, because thieves rob you and run,' one childhood friend told me. 'Sidi took your watch or your T-shirt right in front of you.' By his midteens, Sidna was smoking hashish, drinking wine and hanging out with an older crowd. He liked to dance and earned the nickname Lambada. Besides robbing people, he also stole cars. Friends and law-enforcement authorities claim that he was involved in multiple rapes."

Nearing 20, young Sidi decided to give the straight and narrow a try and enrolled in an "Islamic seminary", where he acquired a taste for Jihadist propaganda.

'"'Why Zarqawi?' I asked the friend who took Sidna to the mahadra. 'What made his sermons appealing?'"

"'Everyone in the Muslim world wants to see American tanks blown up and their troops killed,' he said. 'But bin Laden and Zarqawi were the only ones actually doing it. Sidna admired them for that.'"

You'd think that the ability to recruit from amongst the criminal underclass would be a great asset if you were Osama Bin Laden. But it's actually one of his greatest headaches. Reading Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet, it's clear that the Holy Grail is a popular Muslim uprising against Western control. The key word for them is "popular". They see themselves as a catalyst to achieving this goal. What Ayman al Zawahiri, and other ideologues before him, like Abdullah Azzam, have repeatedly cautioned against is the "bloodlust" of the Algerian type that has lost them the popular support they crave.

It's like a self destruct mechanism built into the takfeeri Jihadi life cycle. To tap into the rich vein of anger and frustration across the Muslim world that would like to see "American tanks blown up and their troops killed", you have to militarily take on the Americans. When you start making gains, you are yourself attacked - which damages your control mechanisms - and your access to funds and recruits is choked off. You've now created a counterculture of death and destruction; and who's turned on by this? Criminals looking for a sanctified outlet for the kind of thing they like to do anyway. So now you are stuck with a talent pool of also rans. And when you get really unlucky, this bunch of miscreants - to borrow a cool word - alienate the very people you are trying to whip up.

Schmidle argues that this inherent weakness comes part and parcel of Osama bin Laden's business model; the franchise.

Now, Londonstani agrees that al Qaeda seems to find itself at a bit of an impasse. But that doesn't mean everyone can happily relax. If anything, al Qaeda has proved its resilience and adaptability. It has also shown that it can prosper by allowing itself to run with events instead of obsessing about controlling them. So, yes, the organisation has hit a bit of a brick wall with its present strategy, but that doesn't mean it can't change that pretty quickly.

After all, what's happening in Pakistan seems to have little command and control direction from al Qaeda, but the US invasion of Afghanistan did trigger a chain of events that now threatens the Pakistani government. There's the risk that Somalia and Yemen could head in a similar direction. Admittedly, this wasn't top of al Qaeda's wish list, but it'll probably do; for now.