Osama bin Laden “is a man on the run, from a cave, who is virtually impotent other than the tapes” he releases from time to time. That was the mid-September assessment of Frances Fragos Townsend, top adviser to President Bush on Homeland Security, terrorism and counterterrorism.
Mrs. Townsend was a former Coast Guard assistant commandant for intelligence and a counsel to the attorney general for intelligence policy. The best and the brightest in the Bush White House, she was deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism before her rise to czar, or czarina, for transnational terrorism.
For a terrorist darting from cave to cave, the world’s most wanted terrorist wasn’t as impotent as he apparently appeared in top secret e-mails speeding into Mrs. Townsend’s computers. The view from cyberspace told a different story about al Qaeda. For bin Laden, it is high noon on the electronic frontier.
As former Central Command chief Gen. John Abizaid said, “Al Qaeda’s organizing ability in cyberspace is unprecedented.” Cyberpower has emerged as a complex ether power in which digital grass roots are truly global. Al Qaeda’s 6,000-plus Web sites supply the ability to liberate and dominate at the same time. Al Qaeda now operates in virtual space with impunity in recruiting, proselytizing, plotting and planning.
In the ether (not the anesthetic), thought is a reality. For millions of Muslim surfers, the global caliphate and Shariah law exist. They have superseded the nation-state, whether the kingdom of Saudi Arabia or the Netherlands, where Muhammad is the second most popular name for baby boys.
The Muslim world’s extremists are roughly estimated at 1 percent of Islam’s 1.3 billion adherents (or 13 million who see suicide bombers and other acts of terrorism as legitimate weapons of war against the U.S.-Zionist crusaders). The fundamentalists who approve of bin Laden, though not necessarily his MO, number about 130 million.
Extremist ranks include many well-educated, middle-class youngsters with computer skills. Some of the cells under surveillance in the United Kingdom include computer scientists and engineers. They travel online, meeting like-minded spirits in the virtual caliphate. Plotting has morphed from the mosque to the virtual global caliphate.
In Pakistan, where al Qaeda and Taliban training camps again operate with impunity, almost half the 160 million population gives Osama bin Laden high marks.
Similar percentages show up in other moderate Muslim states — e.g., Bangladesh, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco. New arrests and revelations about Muslim terrorist sleeper cells in European countries occur almost daily. In Algeria, the underground Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which now includes deserters from the Algerian army, has sworn allegiance to al Qaeda.
Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda is not a hierarchical organization, but a network of like-minded Muslim fundamentalists with jihadi “spear carriers.” Its expansion no longer depends on bin Laden and his deputy, the Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahri (whose group assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981). The Internet, with more than 1 billion people on line, and reckoned to double to 2 billion by 2010, does that job for them automatically.
Iraq, in al Qaeda’s perspective, is a small subset of a broader campaign. For five years, Iraq has been a useful force multiplier for jihadi volunteers. Camp followers in cyberspace have busily posted videos of IED explosions that kill Americans in Iraq, along with beheadings of infidels.
Republican front-runner Rudolph Giuliani’s foreign policy adviser Norman Podhoretz has a new book titled, “World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism.” Last June, in an article in Commentary magazine (which he edited for almost four decades) Mr. Podhoretz “begged” President Bush to bomb Iran before Iran nukes Israel.
Daniel Pipes, also on Mr. Giuliani’s team, agrees because the Islamists have “a potential access to weapons of mass destruction that could devastate Western life.” That means Israel. Explains Newt Gingrich who is seriously considering a run for the presidency: “It makes no sense to have a Holocaust Museum in Washington and yet have no honest assessment of the threat of a 21st century Holocaust … if the Iranians get nuclear weapons and use them against Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem.”
Mr. Gingrich’s alarm bell is the loudest: “The gap between where we are and where we should be is so large that it seems almost impossible to explain why the Petraeus Report, while important, will be a wholly inadequate explanation as to what is required to defeat our enemies and secure America and her allies.”
America, says Mr. Gingrich, is “currently trapped between those who advocate ‘staying the course’ and those who would legislate surrender and defeat for America.” The Petraeus Report is about a specific campaign, he explained, but Iraq is a campaign in a larger war just as Afghanistan is a campaign in a larger war. Context is missing. Like Gettysburg without the context of the larger Civil War still to be won; or Guadalcanal without the larger war still to be won, or President Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech without any understanding about the Cold War and that the Soviet Union was a mortal threat to freedom.
Beyond Gen. Petraeus’ testimony, says Mr. Gingrich, we need a report “on the larger war with the irreconcilable Wing of Islam. This enemy is irreconcilable with the modern civilized world… because it cannot tolerate other religions or other life styles… the Islamofascist approach to imposing its views on others and as such it is a mortal threat to our way of life, to freedom, and to the rule of law.”
On Sept. 7, CIA Director Gen. Michael V. Hayden told the Council on Foreign Relations: “Our analysts assess with high confidence that al Qaeda’s central leadership is planning high-impact plots against the U.S. homeland… we who study the enemy see a danger more real than anything our citizens at home have confronted since our Civil War.”
Without an understanding of the virtual reality of Islam’s global ummah in cyberspace, and a thorough reading of the bin Laden-Zawahri Islamist catechism, the warnings are likely to go unheeded in the Democratic scramble to bug out of Iraq.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.