July 2, 2008

Al Qaeda opens 'franchise' in Algeria

A Threat Renewed - Ragtag Insurgency Gains a Lifeline From Al Qaeda (NYT)

Through contacts with Al Qaeda in Iraq*, Algerian resistance movements have now joined Al Qaeda and turned to AQ style terrorist attacks. I'm sure everyone will spin their own narrative of these facts to fit their own POV.

My view:

I think the explanation that makes the most sense is that this is just another fluctuation in a regional conflict, and practical thinking/exploitation of opportunities by a specific insurgency group. It gets a major story because they used the Al Qaeda brand name; without it, we'd be unlikely to even notice the change in Algeria.

That said, that doesn't mean we shouldn't notice changes among Algerian rebels. And it doesn't mean that there aren't lessons in why the incentives for the resistance/terrorist nationalist movement were stacked that way, and what the consequences will be.

First, Al Qaeda has become a franchise operation. Rather than creating new organizations from scratch, it is much more efficient to incorporate or merge with preexisting terrorists. This is also what Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is. This has a lot of advantages: it creates a natural cell structure, brings in preexisting organizations without the need for start-up costs, and immediately gives more local contacts. It seems to me to be both a sign of strength and weakness: a certain amount of material weakness, as we haven't seen the original Al Qaeda physically spread (though clearly part of the reason groups want to affiliate with them is that they still have substantial assets); and ideological/image strength, as other forces want to use the Al Qaeda name and associate themselves with it.

Second, this is Bad News. It's not as bad as the fanciful, monolithic enemy that populates certain politicians and talk radio hosts' imaginations, or a similarly sized organization dedicated primarily to attacks like Sept. 11th. But the former just doesn't exist while the latter is a stretch to imagine - the history of truly transnational terrorism, aiming toward unitary goals without local concerns, is minimal** - and can be kept suppressed by general counter-terrorism operations.

But franchise operations are still problematic. Most of their efforts will probably be directed at local targets and aims, but some will be diverted on the side toward attacking Western or American targets that are local, nearby, or historically affiliated (the latter is why France is worried about AQA, as Algeria was their colony). And the groups also presumably move toward Al Qaeda in tactics: there's evidence for this in the article on AGA (although the tactics certainly aren't purely AQ or an AQ invention), and also in AQI's attacks. That means more explicitly terroristic & dramatic acts and more civilian deaths, although by all accounts the Algerian nationalists were Not a Nice Bunch previously either.

Third, there are complications in dealing with franchise operations, even of Al Qaeda. Because they're heavily involved with local issues, causes, and opponents, an aggressive strategy to fight them means being heavily involved in local issues. That's, shall we say, not always ideal. One set of problems is exemplified by AQI, where we have an army in the country and thus are deeply involved and have a great deal of control, as well as vulnerability.

The other, more common, problem is in dealing with groups like AQA (or Al Qaeda's new bases in Pakistan's tribal areas) in places we don't control. Here we either have to operate through the central government, which has its own agenda that does not always mesh with ours, or violate their sovereignty and alienate the country. This is particularly problematic in a country like Algeria (and most other Middle Eastern nations) with a dictatorial government. They're secretive and tend to stonewall, mix in suppression of internal dissent and oppression along with anti-terrorist activities, and create image problems for nations working with them.

Fourth, this shows we're losing the broader image war. If groups want to be associated with Al Qaeda, we've failed. It makes it even worse that part of the incentive is to associate with "fighting the Americans". The most effective way to cripple Al Qaeda is to improve our image in the Middle East and reduce theirs. Obviously, we don't want to compromise our values by doing this. It's a straw man to rant that this means adopting Islamic dress codes or abandoning support for Israel. The point is not to make Al Qaeda happy. The point is that no one and no organization should want to be like or associated with Al Qaeda. That makes the organization isolated and far easier to destroy or suppress.

In addition, the fact that anyone would want to change into "Al Qaeda in X" means our deterrent is pretty weak.

I'd say those are the most important points, but I'll add a Fifth: be careful of incentives! Incentive structures apply to terrorist groups and nationalist resistance movements. The Algerian rebels attacked civilian targets in the early '90s, overwhelmingly shifting any popular sympathy to the government (or at least away from them). They reformed their organization, gave it a new name, and adopted different tactics, targeting civilians only rarely.

This changed back again more recently. Why? It's possible bloodlust fluctuates, or evil goes up and down like the stock market. And actually, particular leaders with varying levels of bloodthirstiness can be part of the reason. But the NYT's sources - which, obviously, should be taken with substantial caution, since they come from a terrorist group and/or the Algerian government - indicate that a key moment was Bush designating the group as a 'terrorist' organization and putting it on a US government list of terrorists.

Why would this matter? Because once you've been labeled firmly as a terrorist group, there's much less incentive toward restraint. Especially if the perspective was that the United States was now very hard-line about this, and unlikely to see shades of gray, and you expected the world to go along in the aftermath of 9/11, there's no practical point in restraint. I expect some people think that sounds cold, or somehow improper to analyze, but fighting terrorism as a force of nature won't get you very far. People - even destructive terrorists - respond to incentives, act for a reason, and usually try to achieve their goals, twisted as those goals may be.

*= I'm using Al Qaeda in Iraq and Al Qaeda in Algeria, as these are easier to understand & remember for both me and other Americans. Their true names, however, translate more closely to "Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia" and "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb", referring to more general geographic regions and not the nation-states. This may (or may not) be instructive in itself.

**= All I can think of off the top of my head is the primary Al Qaeda branch and certain, limited segments of the international Communist movement in the 20th century. There are also transnational trends, where there are unrelated local phenomenon following a single theme, like anarchists in the late 19th century to early 20th.

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