Sunday, May 22, 2005

Al Qaeda has been dealt yet another “broken back,” this time by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

President Bush delivered the first in a series of “broken backs” when he said three-quarters of al Qaeda’s leadership had been killed or captured. Mr. Musharraf, in describing the helpless terrorist giant with a broken back, said: “Whatever they are now capable of doing is individual and group actions divorced from central command … they are on the run in the mountains, not in contact with each other.”

What clinched it for Mr. Musharraf was the capture of Abu Faraj al-Libby, suddenly portrayed as the third-highest-ranking member of al Qaeda, a Libyan national who didn’t seem to be on anyone’s most wanted list. But al-Libby’s capture was, for Mr. Musharraf, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, which, in turn, enabled the Pakistani leader to move ahead with a gas pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan — despite U.S. objections.

Pakistan has nurtured close relations with “axis of evil” Iran. A.Q. Khan, architect of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, was secretly assisting Iran’s nuclear ambitions for the last 18 years. This was suddenly stopped in late 2003 when Mr. Musharraf was confronted with incontrovertible evidence of Mr. Khan’s nuclear black-market activities. Since September 11, 2001, Pakistan and Iran have also signed memos of understanding on strategic cooperation.

The broken-back syndrome reflects a dangerous lack of understanding of what happened to al Qaeda after the battle of Tora Bora 3 years ago. That was when the U.S. B-52s carpet-bombed the mountain range straddling the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and then relied on local warlords and their militia to hunt down bin Laden and his entourage. But local militias had dubious loyalties. Unbeknownst to U.S. intelligence, they were friendly to bin Laden, who was allowed to escape into Pakistan Dec. 9, 2001.

Since then, al Qaeda has morphed into a global movement that is part politico-religious, part ideological and part spiritual. Bin Laden himself has transmogrified into a mythical figure, part Robin Hood, and part Che Guevara. He enjoys the popularity of a folk hero in Pakistan, whose back cannot be broken.

Al Qaeda and all radical Islamists seek a pan-Islamic caliphate throughout the world with the dual objectives of overthrowing non-Islamic regimes and expelling all infidels from Muslim countries. Mission impossible, most pundits will say. But what will they say when a terrorist weapon of mass destruction kills several tens of thousands of Americans?

From Mindanao in the Philippines, where Islamist terrorists — now renamed jihadis — are back on the warpath, to eastern, western and northern black African states, where new terrorist cells proliferate, to the Middle East, where longtime terrorist movements are, at the very least, sympathetic with al Qaeda, there is evidence of a worldwide jihadi phenomenon.

Wearing his EUCOM hat, the NATO supreme commander Gen. James L. Jones, and his EUCOM deputy Gen. Chuck Wald, take turns dropping in on local African governments to reassure them they have not been left in the lurch to face the proliferation of al Qaeda terrorist cells.

Whether Darfur in Sudan can be called genocide is a matter of semantics. The fact is ethnic-cleansing thugs, encouraged by the government, have laid waste to the province. According to the Committee on the Present Danger, in Mauritania and Northern Nigeria, jihadis are busy “massacring and enslaving non-Muslims in the name of Islam.”

EUCOM is responsible for all U.S. forces operating across 91 countries in Europe, most of Africa, Russia, parts of Asia and the Middle East, and most of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Horn of Africa is under the Central Command, which also runs operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. EUCOM’s intelligence branch does not share the perception of a broken al Qaeda back. Radical Islamists everywhere see al Qaeda as a symbol rather than a headquarters ordering acts of terrorism.

In fact, small groups of U.S. Special Forces have been flown in from time to time to help local African governments cope with terrorist groups that seem to move with impunity in the largely ungoverned hinterland of failed or failing states.

Gen. Jones and Gen. Wald have testified time and again before congressional committees about the activities of al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Mauritania, Mali, Chad and Niger — and about the illicit diamond trade that finances their operations.

Terrorist activities in sub-Sahara Africa will not disappear, they say. “This could affect your kids and your grandchildren in a huge way,” said Gen. Wald. “And if we don’t do something about it, we’re going to have a real problem on our hands.”

Hard to pay much attention to al Qaeda if you believe its back is broken. And when Osama bin Laden is killed or captured, we will presumably return to the ungainly posture of the proverbial ostrich. Until we are kicked in the most obvious place.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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