- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 7, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

OP-ED:

At an undisclosed location in the Hindu Kush — Assuming he were alive and in full control of his faculties, what event in 2008 might Osama bin Laden choose as the most significant for him and his ambitions?

To be sure, bin Laden’s view of the world reflects a vastly different universe of thinking light years from our own. That said, how might bin Laden look back at 2008 and its meaning for the future of his perverse form of jihadist extremism? The simple answer rests in bin Laden’s understanding that “MD” means far more than the last two words in the phrase weapons of mass destruction.

To bin Laden and al Qaeda, the greatest strategic and political leverage now comes from massive disruption that is far more easily achieved than the mass destruction of difficult to get nuclear or biological weapons. And, despite major competition from other big events - principally the election of Barack Obama, the global economic and financial meltdowns, the Georgian crisis and Israel’s incursion into Gaza - only one in 2008 captured this broader meaning.

No matter how historic the election of the first American of color as president and the immediate impact that has in reversing anti-Americanism by bringing change to the White House, the United States remains an implacable foe of al Qaeda. Tactics may change. Intentions will not. Hence, bin Laden faces unrelenting, mortal danger from the United States irrespective of whomever occupies the presidency.

No matter how dire the economic and financial global crises are, they are only important to al Qaeda in forcing the United States and other enemies to turn inward to deal with the domestic consequences of what could be the worst depression since the 1930’s. With enemies now focused on domestic and economic woes, al Qaeda would presumably be able to use this respite to expand its reach and spread further disruption by planning and executing new attacks designed to exploit these circumstances. But, on the other hand, with oil down by about $100 to less than $50 a barrel, with bin Laden backers in the Middle East dependent on oil revenues and with large holdings of American equities and debt, few states or serious actors are obviously keen in throwing further monkey wrenches into the already reeling economic system. Hence, from a bin Laden perspective, while the global economic and financial meltdowns clearly have huge impact, they do not necessarily hold that much significance for al Qaeda.

While Russia is increasingly seen as a gathering danger to the West, the conflict with Georgia is too localized to have much impact on al Qaeda. The Israeli attacks into Gaza, while heightening tensions in Arab and Muslim quarters, focus attention on Hamas’ key supporter, Iran. No friend of al Qaeda, the rise in the influence of Iran in the region is a far more serious consequence than what is happening in Gaza. But this is of secondary impact as Iran is not yet the target for al Qaeda and Israel’s assaults are a positive distraction of attention but little more in spreading bin Laden’s brand of Jihadi extremism.

The critical event of 2008 for al Qaeda was the Mumbai terrorist attacks in late November that brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war. A handful of men, armed with Kalashnikovs, hand grenades and C-4 explosives were able to put the governments in Delhi and Islamabad at risk of collapse and derail the four year-old peace process. Mumbai, the center of Indian commerce, was paralyzed for days. And the dust has still not settled. This was disruption writ large!

Long ago, al Qaeda recognized that the best way to offset the total military superiority of its enemies was not through conventional combat.Instead, the major strategic center of gravity in this new war has become the inherent fragility and vulnerability of society. As airliners were the weapons for September 11th, the new bulls’-eyes are society’s nearly unlimited fragilities and vulnerabilities that can never be fully protected or made fully secure against a few well-armed and committed jihadis.

The harsh truth is that absent brilliant or extraordinarily lucky police and security efforts or draconian restrictions of freedom, there is no way to minimize the politically disruptive effects of what a tiny number of individuals can wrought. This is why Mumbai will prove to be the most decisive event of 2008 for someone living high in the Hindu Kush.

How, when and where the next onslaughts will occur is a matter for speculation and good intelligence and police work. But they will and Mumbai will be the model. And that model is not bin Laden’s alone. Others will use it as well. Mass disruption is now the most formidable weapon in the inventories of our principal enemies and particularly for bin Laden and al Qaeda.

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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