Al Qaeda's New Base
The Weekly Standard ^ | 11/03/03 | Jeffrey Bell
Osama bin Laden's men are operating in Eastern Iran. What are we doing about it?
AT A TIME when even nuances of Iraq reconstruction policy become flashpoints for bureaucratic infighting, causing competing leaks to spring from almost every precinct of the administration's foreign policy apparatus, the most consequential policy struggle of all is playing out in virtual silence. That is the debate over what to do about the fact that, for the first time since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001, major elements of al Qaeda seem to have acquired a new home. The address is eastern Iran.
This fact, and the nature of the debate surrounding it, was revealed in a thoroughly reported front-page article by Douglas Farah and Dana Priest in the October 14 Washington Post. According to a consensus of American, European, and Arab intelligence officials, the article said, the "upper echelon" of al Qaeda--including a favored older son of Osama bin Laden and the group's de facto secretary of war and secretary of the treasury--"is managing the terrorist organization from Iran."
The intelligence agencies, said the Post, have known about the relocation at least since May, when it was learned that the May 12 Riyadh suicide bombing that killed 35 people, including eight Americans, was conceived, planned, and ordered by high al Qaeda officials in eastern Iran. Around the same time, Saad bin Laden, Osama's son and heir apparent, operating from Iran, was linked to the May 16 bombings that left 45 dead in faraway Casablanca, Morocco.
This information vindicates George W. Bush's analysis of the war on terrorism. At each major decision point since 9/11, the president has pressed for an aggressive, comprehensive view of the enemy and of the moves needed to bring him down. He views the enemy as implacable, protean, and resourceful, bringing together diverse, seemingly contradictory elements that cross national and sectarian barriers to be united by one thing: hatred of the United States and a desire to weaken decisively our role in the world. Interestingly, the Post reports that the architect of the supposedly shocking link between the Shiite and Sunni wings of Islamism was Hezbollah strongman Imad Mugniyah, a Lebanese national responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans going back to the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983.
Above all, the linkup between Iran and al Qaeda supports what could be seen as the core premise of Bush war strategy: the pivotal role of anti-American rogue states--the "axis of evil"--in making it possible for the enemy to accomplish the mass murder of Americans and anyone who stands in the way of bringing this about. Surely it is no accident, in the analysis of the Bush White House, that a surge in al Qaeda activity and visibility coincides with its high command obtaining a new, more secure base. And what better host could al Qaeda have than a well-armed, well-financed Islamist government racing to obtain the nuclear weapons al Qaeda has never made any secret of wanting to use against America and its friends?
What to do? As with other major decision points since 9/11, the current debate is between the aggressive, comprehensive war strategy of the president and some of his top aides, and the cautious, incremental view of many of the military, intelligence, and diplomatic officials responsible for carrying it out. These officials tend to see most issues raised by the war as discrete and separable. Their views have a veneer of expertise and sophistication. Sunnis are not Shiites, they point out. Arabs are not Persians. Governments are not terrorist movements. Islamists don't like secularists. All very true, and yet Islamist warriors are today infiltrating into Iraq to fight side-by-side with Baath restorationists.
So, elements of the U.S. government, and of other governments, do not want to hold Iran accountable for allowing al Qaeda to establish a new global headquarters within its borders. So, the Saudis pursue diplomatic channels demanding extradition of the al Qaeda commanders, while our State Department delivers protests to Iran's utterly powerless president, Mohammad Khatami. Needless to say, these efforts get nowhere, and the excuse given is that the Jerusalem Force, the branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps tasked with sheltering the al Qaeda high command, is said to be somewhat independent of the rest of the Iranian government. Meanwhile, the State Department is described by the Post as "eager to renew talks with Iran on a variety of issues."
Amazingly, this polite, bureaucratic approach is supported by many of the same people who said, more than two years ago, that we needed a polite, bureaucratic approach in Afghanistan. The argument always had elements of truth: Al Qaeda was somewhat independent of the Taliban, after all. In the end, of course, these interesting but diversionary arguments were swept aside when President Bush ordered a full-scale air bombardment on the Taliban units defending Kabul. But while the U.S. military and State Department agonized over how soon and how thoroughly to bomb the forward positions of the Taliban's army, and how challenging it was going to be for the Northern Alliance to represent Pashtun tribal interests in the event of a swift military victory, precious days were wasted and al Qaeda commanders found plenty of time to escape.
Today, as always, the most effective ally of what could be called "micro" thinking is sheer bureaucratic inertia and risk-averseness. How, it is being asked, can we even think about what is happening in eastern Iran when we have our hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan?
It would be foolish, of course, to minimize either the difficulties, or the paramount importance, of bringing peace and self-government to post-invasion Iraq and Afghanistan. But it would be at least equally foolish to minimize the danger to these efforts posed by a reconstituted and revitalized al Qaeda, newly headquartered in the Islamist rogue state that sits between Iraq and Afghanistan.
So, a central premise of the Bush war strategy is once again front and center. The president has repeatedly argued that the nexus between Islamist terror and potentially nuclear-armed rogue states poses the gravest of all dangers to the American people and their safety. If his past performance is any guide, the president will soon turn up diplomatic, political, and--if necessary--military pressure on the Iranian mullahs to break this nexus. One hopes this will happen soon, because what we've learned about al Qaeda's presence in eastern Iran suggests time is in short supply.
Jeffrey Bell is a principal of Capital City Partners, a Washington consulting firm. http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/003/284nnvdo.asp
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