Why Al Qaeda Wants a Safe Haven

Take it from someone who has spent the last half-decade studying terrorist plots: A homeless al Qaeda is the best guarantee against large-scale attacks.

As deliberations about the Obama administration's strategic direction in Afghanistan unfold, the White House is weighing whether al Qaeda, in fact, needs an Afghan safe haven -- an expanse of land under the protection of the Taliban -- to reconstitute its capability to attack the United States. Many noted scholars doubt it. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass bluntly stated, "Al Qaeda does not require Afghan real estate to constitute a regional or global threat."

He's wrong. Although the group has been significantly weakened since late 2001, the only chance al Qaeda has of rebuilding its capability to conduct a large-scale terrorist operation against the United States is under the Taliban's umbrella of protection.

Objections like Haass's are rooted in the following arguments: that terrorists don't need physical space because they can plot online; that the London and Madrid bombings prove deadly attacks can be planned in restrictive, Western, urban locations under the noses of local security services; and that denying terrorists one safe haven will simply compel them to move to another lawless region.

I spent five years as a counterterrorism analyst for the Pentagon and rigorously studied plots from Madrid to London to 9/11. The above arguments may have merit in a piecemeal or abstract sense, but fall apart in the specific case of what we all dread: a large-scale, al Qaeda operation aimed at the United States.

It is certainly true, for example, that terrorist groups can accomplish much online. Individuals can maintain contact with groups via chat rooms, money can be transferred over the Web (if done with extreme caution), and plotters can download items like instruction manuals for bomb-making, photographs of potential targets, and even blueprints for particular buildings.

But all the e-mail accounts, chat rooms, and social media available will never account for the human touch. There is simply no substitute for the trust and confidence built by physically meeting, jointly conceiving, and then training together for a large-scale, complex operation on the other side of the world.

As the 9/11 plot developed, mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM) put the future operatives through a series of training courses along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Courses included physical fitness, firearms, close combat, Western culture, and English language. The 9/11 Commission report notes the extreme physical and mental demands KSM put on the participants -- even if the operation didn't require extensive firearms usage, KSM would have wanted the operatives to be proficient under intense pressure, should the need arise.

Juxtapose that with an online learning environment. While you can no doubt learn some amazing things from online courses, it is far preferable to have a dedicated professor physically present to supervise students and monitor their progress. Or think of it another way: You wouldn't want the U.S. Marine Corps to send recruits into battle without training under a drill instructor, would you? KSM was somewhere between a professor and sergeant.

Second, critics argue that the Madrid bombings of 2004 (which killed 191) as well those in London a year later (which killed 56) were largely -- though not entirely -- conceived, prepared, and executed within their respective countries, thus obviating the need for a safe haven.

True enough. However, unlike 9/11 (which killed nearly 3,000), those plots' successes were possible due to their simple concept and small scale. In both cities, the playbook was essentially the same: Four to eight individuals had to find a safe house, download bomb-making instructions, purchase explosive agents, assemble the devices, and deliver charges to the attack points. Without trivializing the tragic loss of life in the European attacks, building those explosive devices was akin to conducting a difficult high-school chemistry experiment.

On that scale, 9/11 was like constructing a nuclear warhead. In every sense, it was a grander vision, involving 20 highly skilled operatives infiltrating the U.S. homeland, who conducted a series of hijackings and targeted four national landmarks with enough know-how, preparation, and contingency plans to be success. In one instance, KSM taught the 9/11 operatives to shoot a rifle from the back of a moving motorcycle, just in case. You can't do that in someone's bedroom -- you need space, time, and the ability to work without worrying that the cops are listening in.

In other words, as a plot grows in number of operatives, scale of target, distance from base, and logistical complexity, so does the need for space to reduce the chances of being discovered and disrupted.

The final argument is that denying al Qaeda a safe haven is an exercise in futility: Drive Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan and he'd relocate to some place like Sudan, southern Algeria, Somalia, or other swaths of ungoverned territory. However, this logic makes two faulty assumptions: that al Qaeda is mobile, and that the group's international affiliates would automatically roll out the red carpet for the jihadi refugees.

Neither is true. Bin Laden and his senior and mid level cadre are well-known to intelligence services the world over. Any attempt to travel, let alone cross an international border (save Afghanistan-Pakistan) would fall somewhere between "utterly unthinkable" and "highly risky." Moving would further require massive reorientation of al Qaeda's financial operations and smuggling networks.

Nor would bin Laden's senior leaders be automatically welcomed abroad in areas their regional partners control. Though al Qaeda has established "franchise affiliates" in places like North Africa and Southeast Asia, relationships between al Qaeda's leadership and its regional nodes are extraordinarily complex. Groups like the North African affiliate "al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" (AQIM) are happy to co-opt the al Qaeda "brand" for recruiting and financial reasons, but they don't necessarily share the al Qaeda senior leadership's ideological goals. AQIM is much more focused on attacking the Algerian government or foreign entities within the country, having not displayed much capability or desire for grandiose international operations. And last, recruits come to North Africa more often through independent networks in Europe, not camps along the Durand Line.  Think of the relationship like the one you have your in-laws: You might share a name, but you probably don't want them coming to visit for three full weeks.

Regional leaders aren't terribly loyal to senior leadership, either. Take Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the deceased leader of the group's Iraq affiliate. He was summoned to bin Laden's side numerous times in an attempt to exert control as the Iraqi commander's tactics grew more grotesque and questionable. Zarqawi declined, not wanting to risk travel or accept instruction from bin Laden.

In the end, a safe haven along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is as good as it gets for al Qaeda's chances to launch a large-scale attack against the United States. Certainly, smaller, less complex attacks could be planned without "Afghan real estate," but any such plot's death toll and long-term effect on American society will be far more limited.  Unfortunately, that's a risk President Barack Obama has to accept -- no amount of intelligence or counterterrorism operations can provide 100 percent security. But to avoid the Big One, the U.S. president's best bet is to deny al Qaeda the only physical space it can access.

STR/AFP/Getty Images


Let It Ride

When taming volatile currencies, policymakers are trying to rein in forces they can't control -- much less understand.

When European Central Bank (ECB) President Jean-Claude Trichet described the soaring exchange rate of the euro as "brutal" last November‚ he captured the gut feelings of many European exporters‚ not to mention Americans and Asians who are fond of European goods. The recent wild gyrations of the euro and other currencies have once again led to demands for a more stable system of international exchange rates. Business magazines are filled with articles asking whether today's central bankers ought to take a more active role in stabilizing exchange rates‚ or perhaps contemplate a move toward a global currency. But‚ for all its flaws‚ the current system -- in which monetary policy does a pretty good job at stabilizing inflation and a horrid job at stabilizing exchange rates -- may be the best anyone can expect.

Other things being equal‚ almost everyone likes stable exchange rates: Tourists‚ international corporations‚ and consumers who are fond of imported goods. Unfortunately‚ everything else is rarely equal. In a world of highly mobile and integrated capital markets‚ governments face a trade-off: They certainly can use monetary policy to fix the exchange rate‚ but only at the cost of ignoring everything else‚ including domestic growth and inflation. Under a fixed exchange rate‚ any attempt to set interest rates significantly higher or lower than the anchor currency sees capital wildly fleeing in or out of the country. Currency volatility is the price we pay for having independent monetary policies. It may sound grand to coordinate monetary policy to fix exchange rates‚ but the costs can prove severe in practice. One only need look at Europe‚ where recession-bound Germany has been choking under an ECB interest rate policy that produces low inflation in Europe‚ but near deflation in Germany.

There are two key reasons for sticking to a hands-off policy. First‚ history has shown that policymakers are much better at mismanaging exchange rates than stabilizing them‚ in large measure because currency swings are often maddeningly hard to explain or even understand. When the euro was near its low in early 2002 (at $0.85)‚ financial reporters and columnists argued that investors lacked faith in Europe. When it soared to $1.36 at the end of 2004‚ many of these same commentators began worrying that the high-priced euro was making investors‚ well‚ lose faith in Europe. Similar confusion reigns for other major exchange rates‚ such as the U.S. dollar-Japanese yen rate and the U.S. dollar-British pound rate. (Only so-called commodity currencies‚ such as the South African rand and the Canadian‚ Australian‚ and New Zealand dollars show a bit of rhyme or reason to their swings‚ because they are linked to the prices of those nations' key commodity exports.)

Little wonder that when it comes to volatile currencies‚ many policymakers find themselves trying to regulate forces they can barely comprehend‚ much less control. That is one reason why attempts to fix rates often end in a huge speculative attack‚ such as the one that brought down the British pound in 1992 and cost the Bank of England at least $7 billion.

Second‚ although there may be costs to volatile exchange rates‚ demonstrating that they really matter is next to impossible. Back in 1990‚ when European Commission economists were struggling to find a rationale for the euro‚ they pointed out that multiple currencies created various accounting burdens for companies doing business throughout Europe. Such arguments rang true at the time‚ but not today‚ when modern business software allows firms to view their books in different currencies with the click of a mouse.

Another common argument holds that exchange rate volatility dampens trade‚ but most recent estimates suggest that however large that effect seems in theory‚ it is small in practice. For example‚ when the euro moves versus the U.S. dollar‚ neither the price of American automobiles in Europe nor that of European cars in the United States seems to move much in response. In fact‚ the cost is usually borne by those firms doing the importing and exporting; ordinary consumers only shoulder the burden if exchange rate changes endure for a long time‚ in which case‚ they presumably reflect fundamental economic problems.

If the costs of flexible exchange rates are hard to detect‚ the risks of trying to stabilize currencies are all too obvious. China‚ for example‚ has shown that it can stabilize (indeed‚ fix) the yuan-U.S. dollar rate‚ but only through a draconian system of capital controls that severely punishes ordinary citizens seeking to invest their money in something other than the country's bankrupt banking system. Although some left-leaning economists seem to think heavy-handed financial controls are wonderful‚ the truth is that they just don't work well for more-developed economies that need sophisticated and competitive financial markets to channel savings toward productive investments. Unfortunately‚ if China were to suspend its capital controls without allowing its exchange rate to float‚ it would almost surely suffer a massive speculative attack à la Mexico in 1994 or Asia in 1997 and 1998.

Of course‚ at some point‚ exchange rate movements can become so wild as to lose all touch with underlying economic fundamentals. In these extreme circumstances‚ policymakers must think about temporarily subordinating domestic objectives in favor of international stability. But we are not there yet. In general‚ policymakers should focus on adopting sound policies for growth at home‚ and leave exchange rates to the market. Over the last 10 years‚ most countries have made enormous progress in achieving more stable and predictable monetary policy‚ thanks in no small part to independent central banks that have learned that controlling the exchange rate is less important than controlling inflation. Exchange rate stability looks good on paper‚ but it is not worth the price.