Thursday, January 14, 2010

Al Qaeda, Afghanistan, Yemen and a Confused American Intelligence Community

Before the underwear bomber captured America's attention, there was a growing rumbling about the "next front" of the fight against terrorism, Yemen.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, and it is run by a despotic president who lavishes himself with exorbitant mosques and palaces while his people suffer from lack of food and water. President Sellah will be our "ally" as we seek to crack down on the hundreds of local Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, but the more important figure in the equation is Sheik Abdulmajeed Al-Zendani (pictured above). The most important religious leader in Yemen, Zendani has given the green light to target CIA operatives in Yemen as a form of Jihad.

Zendani is not so subtly cautioning against U.S military intervention in Yemen, a sentiment offered by the brilliantly titled Minister of Religious Endowment and Islamic Guidance, Hamoud al-Hitar. Al-Hitar has said said that military action by the U.S or any other government will inflame and unite the Yemenese people.

These words of caution are being disregarded by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), who rather cavalierly suggested that the U.S should consider airstrikes in Yemen. Levin has held reasonable positions on Iraq and Afghanistan, so his hawkishness could be a classic Washington case of "finding the good war," which is how Obama because so committed to escalating Afghanistan.

A recent article by the excellent Tom Engelhardt reveal seismic weaknesses in our Afghanistan intelligence operations that seem likely to be repeated in Pakistan and Yemen. Whether intentionally or not, the military and intelligence community continue to insist on referring al-Qaeda as a global operation, when it is in fact a highly fragmented series of cells that largely do not communicate with each other.

Engelhardt calls this bin Laden's "open-sourcing-" basically any set of disgruntled young militants that subscribe to his beliefs can carry out their evil deeds "in the name of al-Qaeda." This open-sourcing renders our pursuit of "top al-Qaeda leadership" in Afghanistan and Pakistan less meaningful than we might be led to believe. Yet we still pour in thousands of troops to these mountainous wasteland, creating what Engelhardt calls a "666:1" ratio between NATO forces and known al-Qaeda fighter.

My summary can't do Engelhardt justice, so you should reach his whole piece. The larger point, however, is that both Afghanistan and Yemen currently contain known jihadists looking to attack the United States in some capacity. In the first country, we have engaged in an exhausting, deadly and expensive 3024-day war with no end in sight. In the latter, we still have choices. Let's choose a little more carefully before we jump to military action in Yemen.

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