Al-Qaida's search for new sanctuary

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With Afghanistan turning into a less-inviting refuge for al-Qaida, the group must focus on other possible places for sanctuary, such as Iraq, Somalia and Yemen.

Its long-term fate depends on finding another base to conduct operations. Conversely, the United States must ensure that al-Qaida is not successful in finding such a place.

It is unreasonable to say operations are moving to a conclusion in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is an eternal, ongoing operation, one that will never end. However, it is fair to say the shape of U.S. strategy in the country has become fairly clear and effective within its self-defined limits.

The major payoff of this strategy is that, from the beginning, it has disrupted the ability of al-Qaida's command and control organization in Afghanistan to function effectively. Under extreme pressure, the group could barely coordinate its own internal activities, let alone control the international apparatus.

The American goal was narrowly focused on the primary mission of destroying al-Qaida. The internal affairs of Afghanistan were not and will not be of fundamental interest to the United States. Washington has clearly signaled it is prepared to allow Afghan politics to run its course. The United States does not care what the government of Afghanistan looks like so long as it doesn't offer refuge to al-Qaida.

Such sanctuary is the heart of the matter for the U.S. government. Additional al-Qaida task forces may be in the United States, but their position is necessarily precarious, and after executing missions, they must be replaced.

Al-Qaida has also clearly maintained a network of operatives and bases in Europe designed to provide control and support for operations in the United States. But this network is far from secure, as recent arrests in Germany and Spain have shown. These operational locations are under constant threat of exposure and destruction. They provide only a tactical base.

Sanctuary, a place where al-Qaida can recruit, train, plan and confer without threat of destruction, is what Afghanistan provided. The country had many drawbacks, being isolated and distant from the ultimate theater of operations and having limited transport and communications. But many of these shortcomings were also virtues, contributing to al-Qaida's security.

Al-Qaida task forces are designed to operate, for long periods with a great degree of autonomy. The network in other countries has shown itself to be supple and stealthy, able to survive disruption and carry on. However, al-Qaida must have a secure base of operations if it is to function long-term. No matter how diffused the command and control structure is, it cannot survive indefinitely.

Regardless of whether Osama bin Laden survives, al-Qaida now faces a long-range, strategic decision: finding a country whose state apparatus will provide sufficient security for carrying out command, planning, recruiting and training functions. The fundamental mission of the United States is making certain al-Qaida does not find such a place. This will define the war after Afghanistan, and it has two parts:


  1. Al-Qaida will attempt to mount further strikes against the United States while the U.S. government will try to disrupt those plans by attacking al-Qaida within the country and internationally.


  2. On the broadest strategic level, al-Qaida will search for a new sanctuary while the United States tries to block it.

The search for sanctuary is a particularly touchy issue for al-Qaida because it violates a basic operational principle: not becoming dependent on a single state security apparatus. Bin Laden is aware of the fate of European and Palestinian groups who became dependent on Eastern European or Middle Eastern intelligence services. When the groups ceased to be useful, they became prisoners or orphans and stopped functioning. For al-Qaida, one of Afghanistan's great virtues was that the group could dominate the Taliban leadership and never become hostage to the regime.

The problem al-Qaida has is that the events of Sept. 11 have not triggered a major pro-al-Qaida upheaval in any Islamic country. That means it cannot replicate the Afghan situation in any other country. This forces al-Qaida either to do without sanctuary, create it within a secure area of some country or accept refuge in a state whose government has an agenda significantly different from that of al-Qaida and which could turn on the group.

There are few countries with a government that would provide sanctuary to al-Qaida. The most obvious choice would appear to be Iraq. Al-Qaida and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein share a common enemy: the United States. But beyond that there is little commonality.

Hussein ultimately is a Nasserite, believing in a secular, socialist state built around military-driven modernization, and he has an Arabist, as opposed to Islamic, vision. Bin Laden's views are diametrically opposite. He is a religious traditionalist who sees the clerics as the driving force of the state and who is Islamic rather than Arabist in perspective.

Except for their hatred of the United States, bin Laden and Hussein are mortal enemies ideologically, with competing and incompatible visions. Anti-Americanism can submerge these issues for a while, but it cannot create a stable platform. Moreover, as bin Laden or his successors know perfectly well, refuge in Iraq would reduce al-Qaida to an arm of the Iraqi statecraft.

Under the best of circumstances, this would be too narrow a perspective for al-Qaida. Under the worst, it would reduce al-Qaida to a puppet to be discarded, as happened to the Palestinian radicals. Thus, although there is no doubt Iraqi intelligence and al-Qaida have cooperated in the past and will in the future, turning to Iraq for refuge is something al-Qaida would do only as a last, desperate resort. For similar reasons, Libya and Syria, if either were inclined to offer refuge, would also be unlikely choices for sanctuary.

Three other nations offer possible refuge, including Sudan. However, the Sudanese have already had the pleasure of al-Qaida's company. Moreover, intense U.S. and Egyptian pressure, coupled with incentives, have sufficiently influenced the Sudanese enough to make this an unlikely choice.

Somalia is a far more likely choice. Al-Qaida has substantial roots in the country, and anti-U.S. sentiment there is substantial. The political situation mirrors that of Afghanistan, with a tapestry of ethnic and clan groups competing with one another and a central government hostage to such maneuvering.

For all intents and purposes, the country has no central government. And because money can buy clans, and enough clans can create a central government, this is an arena that is tailor made for al-Qaida.

A second possibility is Yemen, where al-Qaida has already flexed its muscles in the bombing of the USS Cole. The problem with Yemen is simply that it has already been used, and following the bombing of the Cole, U.S. intelligence turned all its resources on the country.

It is more difficult to go underground in Yemen, and U.S. intelligence dollars have undoubtedly purchased the services of numerous important players in the last year. Al-Qaida won't be able to be sure who is or is not on the CIA payroll. From an intelligence standpoint, Yemen is a very noisy place, whereas Somalia has been more neglected until recently.

There are other potential havens: countries where the central government may not welcome al-Qaida but where people in regions beyond the control of the government might welcome the group. These countries include:

  1. Pakistan, where pro-Taliban and pro-al-Qaida feelings are substantial and where some refuge would be found. But it is not clear how secure any particular location might be for al-Qaida, both because of complex and shifting loyalties and because of the power of the central government, under U.S. pressure, to aggressively intrude. Pakistan could be a way station, but not final home, unless al-Qaida can facilitate the fall of the Musharraf regime.
  2. The Philippines, where al-Qaida has clearly influenced the Muslim insurrection on the island of Mindanao. However, the government, under U.S. tutelage, has launched an offensive against the Abu Sayyaf rebel group, making this a fairly uncomfortable place.
  3. Indonesia, the world's largest Islamic country, which is in a state of advanced disintegration. This is an attractive alternative save for the fact that no geographical location is clearly under the control of pro-al- Qaida elements. It is simply too early for that.

These are obviously less desirable than nation-states such as Iraq. There has been a great deal of talk of late about Iraq as the next domino that must fall. There are excellent reasons for the United States to want to overthrow Hussein as an end in itself. If not the originator of al-Qaida actions, he is certainly prepared to act as a facilitator.

Nevertheless, it is extremely unlikely al-Qaida would choose Baghdad as a home. Mindanao is a more likely home than Iraq. But in STRATFOR's view, Yemen and especially Somalia are the most likely choices.

The United States knows this. It has placed tremendous financial and political pressure on Somalia in recent weeks. Somali groups have been placed on the U.S. anti-terrorist watch list. Somalia's mortal enemy, Ethiopia, also has made military probes along the border, likely with the quiet encouragement of Washington, or at least with a sense that Washington will probably not object.

As the United States moves toward the goal of depriving al-Qaida of its Afghan sanctuary, the next mission is to prevent the transplanting of al-Qaida's command and control facilities to another secure location. This will not prevent al-Qaida actions in the short term, as its forces are already deployed. During this period, the war will be waged in the United States and Europe.

However, the long-term fate of al-Qaida, and therefore its ultimate survival or annihilation, depends on preventing "the base" from taking root anywhere else. Thus, we can expect to see increased pressure by the United States in any country where al-Qaida might find sanctuary. This will constitute the geography of the next phase of the war.