Destroying al Qaeda Is Not an Option (Yet)

If the world's most notorious network goes down, terrorism will get a whole lot messier.

The old al Qaeda is no more. At least 40 percent of its leadership circa 2001 has either been killed or captured. New faces have fared no better; since July 2008, 11 of the organization's 20 most wanted have been put out of commission. And middle management is almost gone, many of them victims of Predator strikes. What remains is probably a hollow organization, represented by a core of insulated figureheads, such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, surrounded by eager cadres of jihadist newcomers. Before long, the West may just hold a barrel to al Qaeda's collective forehead. Should it press the trigger?

Gut instinct and righteousness scream "yes!" But a better answer might be "not yet." The world would be wise to keep al Qaeda alive, paradoxically enough, for security reasons. Like it or not, keeping a battered al Qaeda intact (if weak) is the world's best hope of funneling Islamist fanatics into one social network -- where they stand the best chance of being spotted, tracked, and contained. The alternative, destroying the terrorist group, would risk fragmenting al Qaeda into thousands of cells, and these will be much harder to follow and impossible to eradicate. It's the counterterrorist's dilemma, and the only real choice is the least unsavory: Al Qaeda must live.

Understanding this dilemma calls for a bit of network theory. Al Qaeda is a loose group of members who interact much like one does with peers on Twitter or Facebook; as in those platforms, al Qaeda members contact each other in sporadic and irregular bursts. And much like trading networks, the terrorist group is built around exchanges. Sure, some parts of the network are more powerful or central than others, but recruits seek membership for a fairly simple set of reasons: a fervent belief in waging jihad, a need for resources and know-how, and the chance to do it all under the mantle of the world's most famous subversive group.

Al Qaeda, for its part, is more than willing to meet its recruits' ideological, material, and prestige needs. The group is beset by high employee turnover, constantly in need of making up for members lost either to Western counter operations or successful suicide missions. Al Qaeda's mid level managers are crucial to filling this personnel gap. These central members link with more contacts than either the secluded leadership or the fresh recruits, while bridging the two groups. At the same time, their higher exposure makes them easier to hunt down.

Herein lies the danger. Unfortunately, if this middle layer of management goes extinct, so will any hopes of stemming terrorist attacks.

It is tempting to draw up an organizational chart of al Qaeda and think that if the important nodes can be identified and destroyed, the rest of the network will follow. But if al Qaeda is shut down and its middle management decimated, eager fanatics around the globe would no longer gravitate toward a centralized base. Their alternative? To form their own no-name networks and band up with any other al Qaeda survivors. Killing off al Qaeda would do little to reduce Islamist terrorism. It would only make the world of terrorism more chaotic.

All this can be dismissed as fanciful theorizing. But what theory predicts, history confirms. Consider the case of the Aryan Nations (AN), a white supremacist movement in the United States which the Federal Bureau of Investigation recognized as a terrorist threat since at least 1999. In September, 2000, AN lost its headquarters in Hayden Lake, Idaho, due to a court order, but this did little to eliminate the group. Instead, it splintered into at least three organizations. AN's director, August Kreis, even recognized the benefits of fragmentation in an interview. Now, he asserted, he and his like-minded colleagues are "much harder to watch." Nine years on, AN's splinter cells may have proliferated -- to how many, no one is sure. With their compound gone, they fell off the grid.

Dismantling a network, then, is often less a dream security fix than a reoccurring nightmare. You can shut down the enemy now, but you won't know where new or surviving elements are.

The alternative to destroying al Qaeda is to keep it weak -- but alive. The West would need to refrain from attacking all its central parts, choosing to monitor and watch them instead. Al Qaeda would continue to attract Islamist militants into its clustered network, where the fight against terrorism is at least manageable.

Assuming the United States and its allies learn more about the network over time, al Qaeda recruits could be shadowed through their training and eventual deployment. New operatives could then be neutralized once they move "downstream" -- away from the network. This timing prevents scattering the higher echelons of al Qaeda, while still eliminating the direct security threat.

Meanwhile, al Qaeda middle managers must live on, if as an endangered species. This does not mean they should be any good at their jobs, however. Predator strikes should focus on competent bosses, yet spare their inept brethren. The former may be more cautious and harder to target, but such selective attacks will leave al Qaeda saddled with a heavy, ineffective midsection of leaders who just may lack the wit to plan hard-hitting operations.

Perhaps the biggest lesson for current counterterrorism policy is that the hunt for  al Qaeda's top leaders should not be an obsession. In all likelihood, they are such isolated nodes that pursuing them is expensive and will yield only limited benefit. In fact, if the argument holds, bin Laden is more useful alive than dead. After all, his inflaming speeches maintain al Qaeda's allure to potential recruits.

Of course, al Qaeda should not be kept alive forever. It can be dealt a deathblow when Islamist fundamentalism loses momentum, for example, through an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. As soon as the pool of recruits drains, al Qaeda's funneling effect would no longer be needed.

But there is no sign that this will happen soon. So until then, we should take full advantage of the simple fact that the net which unites the worst Islamist terrorists also snares them.



Calm Down, Chávez

War-mongering Venezuela is stirring up trouble down south again. But will he really go to war with Colombia this time around?

Hugo Chávez's Sunday TV and radio program Aló Presidente is not exactly known for its brevity or reassuring tone. The Venezuelan president's chief communications vehicle -- the 21st century, socialist version of FDR's notably less incendiary "fireside chats" -- often signals his preferred next steps in the 11th year of his grandiose "Bolivarian" reformation of the country. 

So it was cause for concern when Chávez used last Sunday's program to declare in his characteristically combative style, "Let's not waste a day in our main aim to prepare for war and help the people prepare for war." In a politically unsettled and polarized South America, where arms purchases have nearly doubled over the past five years, reaching almost $50 billion last year, could his Venezuela be the spark needed to light a conflict?

The target of Chávez's ominous warning is Colombia, Venezuela's Andean neighbor. The two countries are deeply interconnected; they share a porous and increasingly combustible border and have had a trade relationship worth upwards of $7 billion. Chávez and Colombian president Álvaro Uribe (now entering his eighth year in office) are at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum and have long mistrusted one another. They have similar take-charge styles of governing, which has made relations even testier and the two leaders' occasional compromises all the more impressive.

But Chávez's war talk has now escalated tensions between the countries to a whole new level. The bilateral relationship had already taken a sharp turn for the worse, when Chávez decided in August to close the border to Colombian manufactured goods, preferring instead to buy from Brazil. Exports dropped 50 percent the following month. And while the shutdown is not airtight, the clampdown has hurt; Colombia was Venezuela's second-largest trading partner. Not only has the commercial relationship suffered, but, for the first time, there have been deaths -- at least a dozen -- on both sides of the border. Massive deportations have sent Colombians back home, and arrests of accused spies have exacerbated the diplomatic spat. Even before the crisis erupted Sunday, Chávez had ordered some 15,000 troops to the border.

The sources of the mistrust run both ways. Uribe is convinced that Chávez is providing support to the leftist FARC insurgency, which has been seeking to topple the Colombian government since the 1960s. And, though less plausibly, Chávez is just as confident that Colombia, with ample and sustained military support from the United States -- and particularly a recently unveiled 10-year agreement to give the United States access to seven Colombian bases for counterinsurgency and anti-narcotics operations -- poses a threat to Venezuela's security and therefore must be resisted. Chávez's worst nightmare is that the Yankees are coming.

So for Chávez, the threat from the United States (acting through the proxy of Colombia, he believes) justifies an arms buildup. He is determined to protect Venezuela from a possible invasion launched by the "imperio" (empire) to his north, however improbable that prospect may be. Since 2005, Chávez has bought between $5 billion and $7 billion in military equipment from Russia, including tanks and advanced anti-aircraft missiles. Cuban President Fidel Castro, Chávez's mentor, has also weighed in on the U.S.-Colombia nexus, alleging in a Nov. 6 newspaper column that the base accord is equivalent to the annexation of Colombia by the United States.

Both Bogotá and Washington have been trying to control the considerable political fallout since the base agreement was leaked in August. Suspicions of U.S. military motives remain, not only in Caracas, but throughout the continent. South America's strong reaction could have been averted with some diplomatic groundwork, such as prior, high-level consultations with natural allies like Brazil. But the Obama administration had apparently miscalculated how big an effect such seemingly narrow questions can have in the hemisphere.

Chávez is taking advantage of the mishandling of the U.S.-Colombia accord to inflame bilateral strains and advance his own political agenda at home. Heated rhetoric aimed at Colombia is a convenient way to divert public attention from Venezuela's mounting "soft spots" and vulnerabilities, including uncontrolled criminality, high inflation, decaying infrastructure, water shortages, and electricity rationing.

Ramping up the rhetoric is not only a defensive move; Chávez has also been on the attack against two opposition governors of states bordering Colombia. Any escalation in the conflict would give him a handy pretext to usurp authority from these local elected officials as he has done with others. Since winning a referendum in February that removed term limits, Chávez has been systematically tightening his grip.

Other countries in the region, Brazil for example, could help defuse tensions and prevent the sort of violent border incident that could set off a serious military conflagration. To their credit, both Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero have offered their services, including as mediators between the Colombian and Venezuelan governments. Uribe has appealed to the U.N. Security Council and the Organization of American States to intervene. Latin American leaders will meet at the Ibero-American Summit at end of November in Portugal, where they might productively tackle such a worrisome situation.

As risky as conditions have become between Venezuela and Colombia -- and external help is warranted -- there are factors that militate against things getting out of hand. A military confrontation would be a costly escalation for all concerned. And fortunately, there does not appear to be interest or public support to go down that road in either country. It is questionable that the Venezuelan armed forces would be prepared to engage in such a senseless military adventure. Further, despite the bilateral rupture, both countries have profound ties; more than 2 million Colombians live in Venezuela. Encouragingly, after Chávez's alarm last Sunday, reasonable voices on both sides of the border -- acutely aware of how much is at stake -- have wisely called on everyone to calm down and take a deep breath.