Swish, Obama and the terrorists

2009-01-22 00:00

President Barack Obama’s inauguration increases the likelihood of a major terrorist attack in the United States. This was the stark message of the South Waziristan Institute for Strategic Hermeneutics (Swish), a think-tank that offers strategic advice to some of the leading players in global politics.

Swish warned in its mid-December report to Obama’s transition team that al-Qaeda “will attempt a 9/11-level attack, probably within the U.S., at some point between now and mid-2010. If and when that happens, your country will require exceptional levels of political leadership if you are to avoid yet another misguided military response.”

Unfortunately, Swish only exists in the fertile brain of British academic and strategic analyst Paul Rogers, who publishes its reports on the website of Open Democracy.

The Swish phenomenon began as a one-man attempt to educate Western analysts in the thinking of their Islamist enemies. The reports mimicked the format used by consultants in the various Washington think-tanks that advise the U.S. government and the Pentagon on strategic matters, but they came from the mythical South Waziristan Institute, which had supposedly been hired by the leadership of al-Qaeda to provide a similar service for them.

In its first report to al-Qaeda in 2004, Swish advised Osama bin Laden’s planners that “the immediate requirement ... is therefore to aid, in any way within the framework of your core values, the survival of the Bush administration”. By invading Afghanistan and Iraq, by his policies of illegal detention, torture and rendition, and by his absurdly militaristic declaration of a “war on terror”, Bush was doing exactly what al-Qaeda wanted.

So, the report continued, it could not recommend a further large terrorist attack on the U.S., since its impact on American public opinion was unpredictable. It might strengthen support for Bush in the November 2004 election, but equally it might turn the American public opinion against him.

You may wonder what all of this has to do with reality. The answer is: a great deal more than most of what passed for political analysis in Washington over the past eight years. While your average Beltway bandit treated the al-Qaeda leaders as a bunch of “mad mullahs” driven only by unreasoning hatred, Rogers assumed (quite correctly) that they are intelligent people with coherent long-term strategies.

In particular, he assumed that a primary purpose of the 9/11 attacks was to sucker the U.S. into invading Afghanistan (and, if possible, other Muslim countries), as that would radicalise Muslim populations and generate waves of recruits for Bin Laden’s organisation.

Once Bush did that, he was al-Qaeda’s man and its main interest was keeping him in power. So, no more attacks on the U.S. between September 2001 and January 2009.

This is not rocket science. Readers of this column will recall that I have repeatedly predicted no further al-Qaeda attacks on the U.S. on exactly the same logic. Why would al-Qaeda risk a backlash against Bush when everything is going so well?

American analysts are very resistant to the notion that their country could be a pawn in somebody else’s strategy, but gradually this perspective has been making headway.

I shared a platform with former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge a couple of years ago and he was willing to concede that his success in “preventing” further al-Qaeda attacks after 9/11 might have been due to the fact that they weren’t actually planning any. But by the same token, Obama’s arrival in power may make a new 9/11 desirable. While he is certainly not proposing a U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan or even a troop withdrawal from Iraq, he seems less persuaded than Bush that invading and occupying Muslim countries is a good idea. Moreover, he intends to end the torture and abuse of (overwhelmingly Muslim) prisoners.

So if there is any way that al-Qaeda can organise a major attack on U.S. soil in the coming 12 to 18 months, it will do it. These are not stupid people and their main goal now must be to stampede the American public back into the fearful mind-set that allowed Bush to launch his wars in the first place and hope that Obama will be swept along by it.

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