The al-Qaida franchise

Whether terrorists out there are members of al-Qaida or not, they have adopted Bin-Laden's tactics.

Bin Laden 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Bin Laden 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
When in December 2007 an American citizen went on television to tear up his United States passport, one was reminded of the anti-war movement of the 1960s and '70s. However, in the days of flower power the protesters were fiercely American, but the man in the modern version belongs to a movement calling for America's destruction. Born Adam Pearlman, these days Adam Yahya Gadahn wears a keffiyeh and a substantial beard. He is known as al-Qaida's American spokesman, or Azzam the American. In a 50-minute address he appeals to the anti-war lobby of today to convert to Islam. That is all it will take for these Americans to no longer be considered the enemy. Just by saying the conversion verse (La ilah illa Allah, Muhammad rasoolu Allah. I testify that there is no true god deity but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God) you will be absolved of all previous sins, he tells his audience. Just that, and you will no longer be the target. Westerners have that choice, but life-long Muslims seemingly do not. Most of the deaths at the hands of Sunni terrorists take place right here in the Middle East. And most of the victims are Muslims. But are these the work of al-Qaida? Did Osama Bin Laden or one of his generals give the specific order to attack the prime-ministerial compound in Algiers or a group of tourists visiting the ancient synagogue on Djerba, Tunisia, or the shootings of French and Belgian nationals in Saudi Arabia and Yemen? At the end of 2007 a group claiming to be a part of al-Qaida said the organization carried out a deadly attack in the West African country. But did al-Qaida really push the button? Welcome to the al-Qaida franchise. THE TERM has been used for a while in counter-terror circles and is beginning to enter the Bush administration lexicon. It is part of a wider recognition that the al-Qaida label has become much bigger than Bin-Laden and even al-Qaida itself. It may sound like an odd comparison but al-Qaida has become the McDonald's of the terror world. The modus operandi is pretty much the same around the world, but the management is different from country to country. What terror experts are trying to ascertain is whether those individual managers are legitimate franchisees or simply stealing the al-Qaida brand name. There does not seem to be a clear cut answer. Al-Qaida in Iraq and Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb appear to be franchise winners, receiving public approbation from al-Qaida HQ - somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan (we think). However, bombings in the Sinai Peninsula, the operations of Fatah Al-Islam in Lebanon, the entry into Gaza of various radical Sunni groups, including the firing of the Grad rocket onto Ashkelon, and dozens of other incidents around the region are subject to much more debate. Intelligence agencies have to painstakingly sort through bomb sites, destroyed buildings and cars, and even human remains, in order to determine what types of explosives were used, where they were made and if identical substances were brought into play elsewhere. The Internet of course is another tool used by terrorists and would-be copycats. There are thousands of Web sites, email rings and chat rooms devoted to passing on information. Some are simply propaganda tools - where gruesome videos are distributed - but others not only teach bomb-making skills, they also enable indirect contact (through at least one intermediary) with the master terrorists. INTERNATIONAL intelligence agencies follow these same paths - both by monitoring Internet traffic but also by role-playing infiltrations - with the hope of preventing attacks and locating perpetrators. On occasion these hunts do lead to the lairs of al-Qaida, but not always, by any means. The work of counter terrorists in detecting their nemeses is more often than not in vain. The franchisees, the copycats and al-Qaida HQ have all become adept at covering their tracks and evading detection. When they suspect the enemy is close by they shut down existing channels of communication and open new ones. And all the while the attacks continue. Whether the terrorists out there are members of al-Qaida or not, they have adopted the mantras and tactics of Bin-Laden. So far they appear to be winning, particularly in the Muslim world. And while the United States says, sometimes almost boastfully, it has not been attacked on home soil since 2001, if the threats from Bin-Laden and 'Azzam the American are to be believed, it is only a matter of time before al-Qaida or one of its franchisees launches a major attack in America. The writer is the MidEast Bureau Chief of The Media Line news agency