Sunday, February 26, 2006

We've Lost Sight Of His Vision

By John Brennan
The Washington Post
Sunday, February 26, 2006; B04

Osama bin Laden's plan to use terrorism to trigger an Islamic reawakening that will challenge Western dominance of world events and assure the ascendancy of Sunni extremists is moving forward -- at an alarming rate.

Hibernating securely somewhere along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, bin Laden and his Egyptian sidekick, Ayman al-Zawahiri, must be deriving warmth from the fact that the Iraqi insurgency has taken on a decidedly Sunni extremist coloration; that Hamas has successfully exploited political opportunities in Palestine; that radicals within Europe's Muslim communities are gaining strength and destructive force; and that caricatures of the prophet Muhammad have led to violence even among Muslims not inclined toward terrorism.

Terrorism, in bin Laden's strategy, is only a tactic, a means to achieve what he believes is a providentially ordained objective -- global domination by an Islamic caliphate. Yet dangerously, the United States is focusing on countering that tactic, missing the growth of the extremist Islamic forest as we flounder among the terrorist trees. Maybe it's because we have led ourselves to believe that the term "al Qaeda" means "Kill Americans." It doesn't. It means "foundation" or "base" in Arabic. Bin Laden chose the word intentionally and cleverly. He knew that his battle-hardened core of veterans from the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s would serve only as the foundational wellspring to irrigate fields of political, social and economic discontent among the Muslim masses.

He also recognized that the global explosion of mass media outlets over the last decade gave al Qaeda a ready recruitment vehicle. Headline-grabbing violent attacks against the West, especially the United States, broadcast by al-Jazeera, CNN or the BBC -- and abetted by instantaneous Internet communication -- were certain to impress and win adherents.

Bin Laden has also insidiously convinced us to use terminology that lends legitimacy to his activities. He has hijacked the term "jihad" to such an extent that U.S. and other Western officials regularly use the terms "jihadist" and "terrorist" interchangeably. In doing so, they unwittingly transfer the religious legitimacy inherent in the concept of jihad to murderous acts that are anything but holy.

While al Qaeda has been rocked by a well-financed and increasingly successful international counterterrorism effort, there is no equivalent successful campaign to counter bin Laden's strategic plan and vision. Sunni extremist activists roam virtually unchallenged in the Islamic world, spreading political and ideological seeds among a younger generation thirsting for attention, power and celestial reward.

Leaders of Islamic countries, organizations and local communities have most of the burden, as well as the best chance, of steering Muslim hearts and minds away from bin Laden's world vision. Yet while most distance themselves from his terrorist acts, their penchant for engaging in fiery rhetoric castigating the West helps breed greater intolerance of non-Muslims. The wide disparity between the haves and have-nots in the Middle East also fuels the fires of Islamic activism.

It would be in the United States's best interests to locate and deal with bin Laden sooner rather than later, to undercut his image of invincibility among his followers. But whether his ultimate demise is the result of a well-targeted missile, disease or old age, his days are numbered. His strategic plan, however, has the disturbing potential to live on -- unless we are able to ensure that his vision, his values, his followers and he himself are discredited in the Islamic fields he has so adeptly cultivated.

jbrennan@theanalysiscorp.com

John Brennan, former head of the National Counterterrorism Center and the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, retired from the CIA in November after a 25-year career. He is president and CEO of The Analysis Corporation of McLean.

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