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The arm of the terrorists is not that long



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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November 3, 2009

LONDON - It is little comfort to the families of those murdered but the evidence is that the life cycle of a terrorist group is 40 years and of many much less, and very rarely goes into a second generation. Policy makers and the media skim over the built-in weaknesses of terrorist groups. The highlighting of their dastardly deeds gets full play, but the potent evidence that points to infighting and fractionalizing is downplayed.

The opening of recent archives shows that even heads of government including the president of the U.S. have not been given the raw material on this by their intelligence services to make up their own mind.

Members of the West German Second of July Movement (an ally of the Baader-Meinhof group that caused mayhem in the 1970s) shot a colleague because they believed he had botched a bombing and become a police informant.  A few weeks later a member was murdered because he had refused to murder a colleague. Similarly, Le Front de Liberation du Quebec self-destructed because of bitter internal disputes. In 1969 fourteen members of the Japanese Red Army were tortured and killed by their compatriots because they disagreed over ideological issues. Competing terrorists jockey with each other for position as between Palestine groups in the second intifada, strengthening the upper hand of the Israelis.

Terrorists often overreach, losing what civilian sympathy they may have built their strength on. Al Qaeda is the best example. Its support is a poor shadow of what it had at the time of 9/11. Finding support for it in the Muslim world today is almost akin to finding a needle in a haystack. The splinter group of the IRA, the Real Irish Republican Army, never recovered its standing after the Omahgh bombing that killed women and children after the Good Friday truce. When in 1978 the Italian Red Brigades murdered the former prime minister, Aldo Moro, that was their end as far as public opinion was concerned. Soon after, all their leaders were rounded up.

But public opinion is fickle, ill informed and easily manipulated by the authorities and the press and, among young people, too often subject to the romanticising of would-be revolutionaries. Che Guevara remains even today an icon in tens of thousands of student-frequented coffee shops all over the world.

Osama bin Laden put it neatly when he said in a videoptaped message in 2004, “All we have to do is to send two mujahedin and raise a piece of cloth on which is written “Al Qaeda”, to make the generals race and to cause America to suffer, human, economic and political losses.”

By hiding with a few dozen followers in Afghanistan he brought the wrath of the western war machine onto a people who, despite their warrior reputation, are essentially peace loving and politically quiescent. This has done more than Al Qaeda could ever have done on its own to give the movement life - all at the expense of mainly innocent people. Now the main unspoken reason for continuing fighting in Afghanistan is to preserve the esprit de corps of the western militaries. The shadow of the Vietnam defeat is a long one.

In time Al Qaeda is likely to destroy itself by its own internal feuds, admittedly only under pressure. But that must be implemented not by armies and inaccurate drones but by tough policing. The many Al Qaeda-type cells in Europe, Canada and the U.S. have been broken by solid police work.

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At the heart of Al Qaeda is a belief in a single Salafist strand of Islamic teaching. According to “How Terrorism Ends” by Audrey Kurth Cronin, “One long-standing source of dispute is the argument between those who adhere to the beliefs of revered Salafist and Hadith scholar, Shaik al-Albani, who argues that jihad should entail elements of compromise and those who, like Ayman Zawahiri, bin Laden’s deputy, who argue that anything less than killing the infidels is “appeasement”. Likewise, a divisive and passionate element of discord is the issue of whether or not it is acceptable to kill Muslims, particularly the elderly, children and women.

In Iraq the cruelty of the Al Qaeda affiliate with its assassinations, enforced suicide bombings, beheadings and forced marriages repelled Iraqi Sunnis. Zawahari wrote a letter to Abu-Musab al Zarqawi, the local leader, asking him to desist.

Good police work, a la the Israeli effort to capture Adolph Eichmann, is the way to go with Osama bin Laden and his merry men. Anything else contains the seeds of its own failure.


Copyright © 2009 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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