Al Qaeda is a terrorist organization that was formed in 1988 by Osama Bin Laden. Today, this organization is a major terrorist threat to the United States, having claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. The attack hit The Pentagon, Washington D.C and WorldTradeCenter headquarters in New York. Although homeland security programs on prevention of terrorist attacks and reduction of vulnerability to terrorism have recorded improvements since September 11, 2001 attack, Al-Qaeda remains a threat big security threat owing to the group’s ideological appeal as well as presence of independent cells different regions of the world.
The primary membership base of Al-Qaeda was Muslim fighters who defended Afghanistan when the country was invaded by Soviets in 1979. Between 1996 and 2001, Al-Qaeda was actively involved in carrying out military training in camps within the Afghanistan territory. This presence was eliminated by the U.S invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. This invasion was triggered by the September 11 2001 attack on WorldTradeCenter in New York and The Pentagon in Washington. Al-Qaeda claimed the responsibility for masterminding and carrying out the attack. After this American attack, new homeland security programs were introduced.
The issue of identifying areas with heavy Al-Qaeda presence has been a subject of widespread speculation since the U.S invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Al-Qaeda appears to have affiliations with many militant groups in North Africa, Eurasia and Southeast Asia. This increases the vulnerability of the U.S to terrorist attacks. In late 2006, violence in Afghanistan spiked and experts cite this as an indication that the terrorist group continued to command a heavy presence in the country (Rohan, 2002:112). Other sources have indicated the exact opposite, claiming that the group is relocating its bases from Afghanistan to other countries of Middle East such as Iran and Iraq.
The ideology of Al-Qaeda
The objectives of Al-Qaeda closely mirror those of its leader, Osama Bin Laden. The group’s main aim is to keep with the militant tenets that characterize radical Islam groups. Al-Qaeda adheres to the same principles as Muslim Brotherhood, a militant group that has existed for a much longer time. Al-Qaeda perceives the current leadership of Arab countries as secular submissive to Americans. They hold them responsible for permitting forms of Islam that are very corrupt as well as allowing American occupation of Arab countries. The group therefore fights to remove leadership from power and establish purely Islamic states.
Osama Bin Laden studied Islam at KingAbdulAzizUniversity, Jeddah. Born in Saudi Arabia where majority of the population consists of Sunni Muslims, Osama Bin Laden seems to have acquired militant Islamist views from his lecturers, most of whom had strong links with Muslim Brotherhood.
A corollary goal of Al-Qaeda is to weaken Israel, a key American ally in the Middle East region. The terrorist organization hopes to establish a transnational government that encompasses all Muslims.
Many people compare the organizational structure of Al Qaeda to a many-headed serpent described in Greek myth, the Hydra. Efforts to kill Hydra by chopping of its head were always ended in futility as another head grows back and the rest of the body remains functional and intact. Likewise, Al Qaeda, thought seeming to have a very small signature structure, its autonomous cells are very easy to set up. For this reason, an attack on one cell has no significant effect on the entire network.
The mystery in defining the organizational structure of Al Qaeda leaves room for speculation about the scale of the threat it poses to US’s peace and stability. Some people say that its organizational structure poses a marginal threat compared all other existing global Islamist threats. Those who hold this view believe use diplomatic methods in areas such as the Middle East in order to prevent infiltration with Al Qaeda terrorists.
To others, Al Qaeda is the central pillar that binds Islamic terrorism together. They believe that the best way to deal directly with this threat is to search for and arrest all Al Qaeda operatives and leaders. In this case, the widely held view is that eliminating Al Qaeda elements in Iraq is the best way of eliminating the likelihood of frequent terrorist attacks on the United States and her key allies across the world.
Capability, tactics and notable targets
Leaders of Al Qaeda have been using very sophisticated media campaigns and public relations initiatives in order to communicate political messages, elicit different psychological reactions and gain sympathy from extremist militants from the Muslim world. The messages are often conveyed through video, audio and audio-visual clips and they contain signals that are easily read by operatives in order to carry out terrorist attacks.
Notable figures within the Al Qaeda organizational hierarchy claim that the messages are primary sources of information for people who would like to understand the political and ideological demands that Al Qaeda always fights for. Bin Laden retains the ability to offer leadership to all Al Qaeda operatives as well as affiliate groups despite counterterrorism operations that have been taking place since 2001.
With the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, jihadist rhetoric has been a very dominant driving force used by the Al Qaeda leadership to continue with insurgency efforts. Osama Bin Laden’s deputy is Ayaman al Zawahiri, a man who has retained this position since the November 1989 assassination of Dr. Abdullah al-Azzam, a former lecturer of Bin Laden with whom they were fighting for Al-Qaeda leadership.
After the 2005suicide London transit system bombings, Al Qaeda’s leadership stated that it was willing to enter into a long-term truce with the United States on the framework of fair conditions.
Al Qaeda’s audience
The diverse statements that Al Qaeda makes from time to time vary in terms of content and tone, making them appeal to different target audiences. Early statements were characterized by pseudo-nationalist tone that was directed by the Saudi Arabian people (Gunaratna, 2002:45). The messages highlighted different ways in which target groups could offer support to Al Qaeda in order to enable it fulfill it ideological missions.
Between 2004 and 2006, most of the statements were directed at the U.S and her allies in Europe. The messages were a blend of threats of violence and a portrayal of Bin Laden as a statesman. The main aim was to appeal to both western audiences and moderate Muslims. He used these messages to explain the motive behind the push for terrorism against the west and the measures that the west could take in order to overcome this aggression. Bin Laden’s anti-Semitic sentiments are intertwined with a call for “Islamic Unity”, condemnation of the state of Israel, and accusations against the U.S for complicity towards suffering among Muslims the world over.
After the September 11 attacks, the tone of Al Qaeda’s political and ideological rhetoric somewhat changed and focus was now on national groups that found themselves on the frontlines of counter-terrorisms operations that had been reignited, such as Palestinian territories, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Al Qaeda leaders have continuously issued statements that reveal the military and economic vulnerabilities of United States and all her key allies with regard to their reliance on Middle East oil. Their statements indicate that they are aware of the pivotal role that this resources plays in the global economy. Oil, Bin Laden says, is a tool that Muslim societies should use in order to bring about economic empowerment in their states. He therefore calls for preservation of this important commodity. This brings to the fore the question of whether or not U.S imperialism is responsible for her terrorism problems.
Notable terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda
A notable terrorist attack that was strongly linked to Al Qaeda is the August 7th bombing of U.S embassies in Kenyan capital Nairobi and Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam. Almost 300 people were killed in these two attacks. The ability by this group to mastermind and carry out two attacks in two different countries at the same time indicated its organizational and military strength.
In October 2000, Al Qaeda bombed U.S.S, an American ship off the Yemen coast, killing 56 people. The most daring terrorist attack was on September 11, 2001, on Pentagon, WashingtonD.C. and World Trade Center, New York City, where over 3,000 people lost their lives.
In July 2005, the group carried out an attack on London’s transit system. Its leaders claimed that this was in retaliation to British involvement in the Iraq invasion of March 2003.
Prior to the September 11 attacks, many other attacks are attributed to Al Qaeda, including one in 1992 on 100 American personnel who were about to be deployed to Somalia as part of Operation Restore Hope. There were no deaths in this attack. Al Qaeda has continually claimed responsibility for arming Somali militias who challenged US attempts in October 1993 to restore law and order in that country. Eighteen US forces were killed in Mogadishu.
In June 1995, Al Qaeda is alleged to have assisted an Egyptian Islamist group that attempted to assassinate the country’s president, Hosni Mubarak while on a state visit to Ethiopia. In November the same year, four Saudi national confessed on Saudi Television to have drawn inspiration from Osama Bin Laden in order to bomb the Riyadh military advisory facility that belonged to the U.S, in which five Americans died.
The September 11th attack commission established that Al Qaeda had in deed participated in the June 1996 bomb attack on KhobarTowers, in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia where 19 U.S airmen lost their lives. Earlier on, Louis Freeh had attributed this bombing solely to Saudi Shiite dissidents who were being assisted by Iranian agents.
Analysis of Al Qaeda
The threat of terrorism from Al Qaeda is very real, especially from renewed upsurge in radicalism in Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq. The next three years promise to be very challenging for the US if proper policies are not put in place in order to counter Al Qaeda terrorist threats.
Various homeland security policies have been put in place in order to prevent any terrorist attacks from taking place. The current administration and congress have outlined five major policies aimed at countering Al Qaeda terrorist threats. They include prevention of terrorist attacks; reduction of vulnerability to terrorism; building of homeland defense and national preparedness; reshaping international environments in order to reduce terrorist threats and sustaining homeland security.
On prevention of terrorist attacks, emphasis now is on refocusing on the ideological and political basis of Al Qaeda and the Islamist movement that this group has inspired. In this case, the policy is aimed at improving the quality of domestic intelligence in terms of capabilities without interfering with anyone’s civil liberties. Within this policy, focus is keeping dangerous technologies out of reach of Al Qaeda operatives.
In the view of Piszkiewicz (2003:25), Policy mechanisms of reducing vulnerability to Al Qaeda terrorism are being targeted on those infrastructural installations that are more likely to be attacked by terrorists. The aim is to prioritize security measures in these areas. Such measures are important in averting global economic instability that has characterized past terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda.
The homeland defense and national preparedness policy is aimed at laying down the response and recovery procedure to be followed in the unfortunate event of a terrorist attack. This policy has been formed with close reference to the amorphous nature of Al Qaeda that makes it difficult for proper response mechanisms to be put in place in order to discourage operatives and masterminds from launching more terrorist attacks with unabated impunity (Thornton, 2005:3)
Although sustained homeland security has always been a priority policy mechanism in the U.S., it has faced a complete overhaul as a result of terrorists’ threats from Al Qaeda. Homeland security has been strengthened and made more alert. More funding has made it possible for a stronger, foolproof regulatory framework to be put in place. They policy has been implemented without compromising on core American values.
Perhaps the greatest threat that Al Qaeda poses to America today is that of planning and carrying out attack in countries that support America in matters of counterterrorism initiatives. American maintains very deep-seated economic interests in these countries. Therefore, it cannot afford to back off from international environment. How the US does deals with this precarious international environment scenario determines the whether or not risks of Al Qaeda attacks are heightened or lowered. This is why reshaping foreign policy and international relations environment has been a core policy strategy since the September 11th attacks.
The Obama administration has had a hard time trying to deal with anti-American sentiments that resulted from the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 on claims that the country had weapons of mass destructions. Things did not go well for American when the search for these weapons ended up in futility. It has been a top-priority homeland security policy to use non-proliferation efforts in order to win back international sympathy in counterterrorism efforts.
Within the realm of asserting herself as a responsible world power, the US has had to put in place a policy that ensures that weak states are uplifted since they are at high risk of being used by Al Qaeda as safe havens. The policy, if used well, could help the US win back the confidence of the international community in terms of its ability and responsibility to lead the fight against international terrorism.
Homeland security’s policies against terror
Shifting counter-terrorism efforts from Iraq to Pakistan and Afghanistan has proved to be a rather tricky decision that requires careful scrutiny in order for success to be achieved. Unfortunately, the recent increase in radicalism in Yemen has not made the situation any easier for policymakers in the US. The attempted suicide bombing of a U.S. airline on Christmas day in 2009 puts the US in a very precarious situation.
It seems that in their current form, international counter-terrorism efforts have not yet succeeded in keeping the borders open while still ensuring that they are smarter. This incident also put to question the ability by US security agencies to share and exchange intelligence information. However, this is not a problem with policy; rather it is a problem with implementation. If handled properly, the prevailing security policies can thwart any Al Qaeda threat.
Recommendations for making counterterrorism policies effective
After all policies have been laid out, what matters most is the course of action followed on a daily basis. Improvement in detection and exertion of control over biological and nuclear weaponry research needs to be a priority area that should be defined and clearly illustrated in the policy. This would prevent fault lines from occurring when it comes to implementation.
Some policies require fine-tuning in terms of definitions, scope, and modalities of achieving the goals sets within the set timelines. In Pakistan, for example, merely focusing on the search for Al Qaeda leadership is not enough. A specific policy that guides all the operations carried out in the country is needed. Comprehensive immigration reforms are needed as well.
Local law enforcement agencies require a special policy framework within which to operate in the search for al Qaeda networks. Muslim groups within the United States have often complained that local counterterrorism efforts have lead to racial profiling; thereby denying these groups their fundamental liberties. According to Burke, 2007:56 such sentiments only strengthen radicalism since they are easily used by Al Qaeda to search for sympathizers. They are also used to fuel their propaganda machine that leads to increase in recruitment drives that target Al Qaeda operatives.
The counterterrorism efforts are bound to have financial implications for the U.S. In Iraq, reducing troop levels and instead increasing funding would help ease extremism (Preble, 2004: 36). The funds released this way would be used to facilitate transition in law enforcement processes without creating a vacuum in terms of law and order.
The cost of security-related credentials such as passports has gone high as a result of stringent measures being taken within the homeland security policy frameworks. Subsidizing this cost would ease the financial burden that many Americans are bearing today. The same case applies allocation of law enforcement grants that the federal government allocates for cities and states. Increasing this grant would ease the oversight- role burden that the federal government is faced with today.
When it comes to reducing vulnerabilities to Al Qaeda attacks, there are always priorities to be taken. It is often difficult to agree on which areas deserve special preference. In this case, the best thing is to spell these priorities clearly in a policy. Al Qaeda seems to have capitalized on the inability by the U.S to flex its muscle when it comes to international aviation security. The same case applies to issues of chemical security oversight and passenger rail security.
With regard to security, air cargo and passenger inspection efforts require to be doubled. Cyber security issues need to be addressed internationally. Container scanning deadlines that are congressionally mandated ought to be relaxed in order to create more time for lengthy inspections.
In light of all these considerations, homeland security policies, if handled within a proper regulatory framework and sufficient funding, the fight against the perennial terrorist threats posed by Al Qaeda can be won.
The launch of Homeland security programs on prevention of terrorist attacks and reduction of vulnerability to terrorism has helped the country deal with terror both home and abroad. However, areas of vulnerability to terrorism from Al Qaeda may arise if the policies are not reviewed in order to reflect a fast changing, increasingly technological world. It would also help if the policies were aimed at improving ideological ties between the U.S and the Muslim world.