TAMPA, December 11, 2013 — For twelve years, the Bush and Obama Administrations have promoted a narrative about the War on Terror. It has changed slightly in superficial ways, as when President Obama gave it a new name, but the crux of the narrative has not changed. The United States is fighting a war against a worldwide terrorist organization called al-Qaeda, formerly headed by über-terrorist Osama bin Laden.
Americans are led to believe that this organization has a single mission against the United States and is directed by a hierarchy of terrorist leaders, all reporting up to a senior command located somewhere in Afghanistan. Many of the lawmakers and cabinet personnel who promote this narrative likely believe it themselves, at least to some degree.
Washington sees al-Qaeda the way it sees itself, a centralized, top-down hierarchy with a chain of command reporting up from every corner of the earth. It makes for a good story, but it’s not even remotely true. Virtually every incident involving this fictional organization refutes the narrative.
Veteran reporter Eric Margolis never did. He’s been reporting on the true nature of the Islamic militant groups from the very beginning. He should know what he’s talking about. He was embedded in Afghanistan in the 1980’s when bin Laden and what is now Al Qaeda and the Taliban were U.S. allies, fighting the Soviet Union.
For what it’s worth, bin Laden and other Islamic militants apparently regarded Margolis’ reporting as accurate. He was named as one of a small group of reporters who “fairly and accurately reported on the region” in alleged Al Qaeda letters released last year. Commenting on that release in “Osama’s Almost Letter to Me,” Margolis wrote,
“Al-Qaida was not founded by Osama bin Laden, as many wrongly believe, but in the mid-1980’s in Peshawar, Pakistan, by a revolutionary scholar, Sheik Abdullah Azzam.
I know this because I interviewed Azzam numerous times at al-Qaida HQ in Peshawar while covering the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Azzam set up al-Qaida, which means “the base” in Arabic, to help CIA and Saudi-financed Arab volunteers going to fight in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. In those days, the west hailed them as “freedom fighters.”
Margolis goes on to report that neither Al Qaeda in Afghanistan nor the Taliban had anything to do with 9/11. Their raison d’etre is fighting foreign troops within their borders. When the invaders were Soviet, they fought the Soviets, using similar but updated tactics to those previously used against the British. When the invaders were American, they fought the Americans. That’s what they do. Thus Afghanistan’s ominous nickname, “Graveyard of Empires.”
According to this alternate narrative, the “extremists” in Afghanistan had nothing to do with 9/11 nor any tangible connection to the group that perpetrated the attacks. Those were mostly Saudi Arabian nationals who planned the attack in Hamburg, Germany and Madrid. The only thing the attackers had in common with Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan was hatred of the United States. But they hated the United States for different reasons.
The 9/11 attackers, being Saudi, most likely hated America for precisely the reason Osama bin Laden stated: U.S. bases in the Muslim holy land and (secondarily) its support for Israel. Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan hated America because the United States invaded, ignoring the Taliban’s quite reasonable request for the U.S. to produce evidence of bin Laden’s guilt before demanding his extradition.
What Washington is calling “Al Qaeda in Syria” is also a completely different group. They exist to overthrow the Assad regime. Since that regime is a longtime ally of Russia’s, the U.S. has actually supported these rebels, amidst heavy criticism from within Washington’s ranks that the Obama administration is supporting Al Qaeda. This was apparently confirmed when Syrian Jabhat al Nusra Front chief Abou Mohamad al-Joulani pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Sheik Ayman al-Zawahri.
However, the pledge of allegiance actually supports the alternative narrative, not Washington’s. It is apparent from the reports on the pledge that the Syrian group had no previous connection to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. It came immediately following an announcement by the Islamic State of Iraq that al Nusra was part of its network.
The ISI is one of many militant groups that filled the vacuum left after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and which had no active presence before Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled. ISI similarly pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda in 2004 while fighting U.S. forces in Iraq.
According to The Telegraph’s April 10, 2013 report, Syria’s al-Nusra pledges allegiance to al-Qaeda,” al-Joulani (al Jawlani) was quick to clarify the relationship with ISI:
“We inform you that neither the al-Nusra command nor its consultative council, nor its general manager were aware of this announcement [the announcement by ISI]. It reached them via the media and if the speech is authentic, we were not consulted,” Jawlani said…We reassure our brothers in Syria that al-Nusra Front’s behaviour will remain faithful to the image you have come to know, and that our allegiance (to al-Qaeda) will not affect our politics in any way,” he added.”
In other words, the Syrian rebel group al Nusra was a group organized around toppling the Assad regime in Syria. It pledged allegiance to what Washington calls “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” but which is really the ISI. The ISI in turn was a group organized to fight U.S. forces in Iraq, with the long term goal of establishing an Islamic state there after U.S. forces withdrew.
None of these groups were part of a worldwide, centralized organization to fight the “Great Satan.” Instead, they are all disparate groups which formed for different, localized reasons and discovered after the fact that they all had a common enemy, the United States. The one exception to this is the group in Syria, whose western, industrialized enemy is Russia. That is why “al Qaeda in Syria” has sought to work with the United States instead of fight against it. The United States is useful in its goal of toppling the Assad regime and establishing an Islamic state in Syria.
All of this leads to one, inescapable conclusion. The United States has accomplished nothing in twelve years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Iraq War actually expanded the presence of Islamic militant groups and led to a fundamentalist Islamic state there, with strong ties to Iran.
Rather than waging a war against a centralized, top-down organization with divisions in several Middle Eastern countries and agents embedded all over the world, Washington is actually playing a deadly game of “whack a mole,” with new moles popping up out of new holes every time Washington swings its mallet.
That means that triumphant announcements about killing “the number three man in Al Qaeda” mean absolutely nothing. That Al Qaeda hierarchy doesn’t exist. Instead, independent groups all over the world discover a kinship with each other all centered around one phenomenon: U.S. intervention in their nations. Intervention could be military, covert or merely aid to a local dictator.
Iranian militants hate America because the CIA helped overthrow their democratically-elected government in 1953 and then maintained the hated Shah as dictator there for almost three decades afterwards.
Militant groups in Saudi Arabia hate America for maintaining the Kingdom of Saud and for the additional insult of previously garrisoning troops in their holy land.
Militant groups in Iraq hate America for first supporting Saddam Hussein over the wishes of the Shiite majority and then destroying their country when Hussein became troublesome for the United States.
Militant groups in Afghanistan hate America merely because they are the latest western empire to invade their homeland. It will soon be apparent that they have expelled the United States the same way they did the Soviet and British empires.
The Tsarnaev brothers took direction from no one overseas. They just dreamed up their horrible crime and executed it. Their stated reason? U.S. military interventions in the Middle East.
That doesn’t mean the terrorists are justified. If a wife catches her husband with another woman and shoots him, no reasonable person would conclude that she “hated her husband for his freedom.” Acknowledging that cheating on her was the reason she shot him is not the same as condoning the murder. If she confesses to the murder and states her motive, nobody questions it.
Given the complete failure to accomplish anything in twelve years of war, the true, decentralized nature of the various Islamist groups and the likelihood that new ones will emerge wherever Washington intervenes, nonintervention seems to be the only effective way for Washington to reduce the risk of terrorism in the United States.
Washington should have learned this from the Cold War. Wherever nations succeeded in establishing communism, including in Viet Nam after the U.S. withdrawal, communism eventually died of natural causes. The only places it still exists is Cuba and North Korea, both still under siege by the U.S. military. The U.S. military presence in and sanctions on both countries have kept communist regimes in power long after their shelf life, solely because the people rally around their leaders in the face of a foreign threat.
History is repeating itself. Islamic fundamentalism is the new communism. The difference is that the U.S. is no longer capable of squandering its resources for decades whacking moles. It’s time to start playing the game smart, before America loses it for good.
Tom Mullen is the author of A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.