January 22, 2013 12:34 PM
As the details emerge about the recent hostage-taking and rescue efforts at the Saharan gas facility in Algeria, it is good to step away from the roiling cauldron of news and take a clear-headed view of this incident. It is an indicator of the prevalence of Al Qaeda as a “brand,” not an organization.
I was giving a two-day workshop for Kennedy Space Center safety personnel on criminal and terrorist incidents back in August of 1998. Overnight, between day one and two of the program, we all learned of the US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. My class asked what I thought of it and who was behind it. In my estimation, I said that it looked like Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Linden. Now this was three years before the atrocities of 9/11 and two years before the USS Cole attack.
However, for those who follow such things, the fingerprints glowed. All that the phrase “Al Qaeda” means is roughly translated as “the base.” What commentators to this day are failing to grasp is that Al Qaeda is a free-floating philosophy, not an organization like the NFL or McDonalds. If we think of it as something that acts only on orders from headquarters, we fail to grasp how it really works.
There is no actual “base” from which supplies and orders come. There is an affiliation of semi-autonomous groups like AQAP (Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula) working out of Yemen but the group acting over in Algeria and Mali is its own entity. There is a common sense of action and a common motivation (expelling the Western interests) that can be traced all the way back to Bin Laden’s fatwah published in London’s Al Quds Al Arabi back in 1996. The “orders-of-the-day” have already been given and therefore groups and individuals who adhere to those ideas need only plan and act. Any terrorist outfit or individual that wants to act under that call and brand itself “Al Qaeda of XYZ” can do so without fear of copyright infringement.
This is where our understanding breaks down. Without a central command-and-control structure or far-reaching communications to intercept, it is much more difficult to predict future events. The British Prime Minister David Cameron is correct in stating that the war on terror may take decades. This is, indeed, a generational conflict of deeply held philosophies, more akin to the Crusades than World War II or even Vietnam.
One historical comparison did occur to me. We have just passed the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre, which, in my theoretical framework, marked the beginning of the “2nd Era” of modern terrorism. In that incident, when faced with a tactical response, the Black September terrorists killed the remaining Israeli terrorists with hand grenades. There is no effective opportunity to negotiate when that was the terrorists’ potential end game and such was the conclusion reached by the Algerian authorities.
Even though the terrorists in this case did slay dozens of innocent persons, before meeting their own demise at the hands of the Algerian commandos, we would do well to note that over 800 persons were freed. It harkens back to an uncomfortable part of my seminar for the KSC folks. I simply pointed out that the phrase “acceptable losses” must become part of our lexicon when dealing with foes who are so bent of death and destruction.