Heritage Foundation: Three Fronts, One Long War

Americans often are accused of talking to themselves — of seeing the world only through American eyes, American interests, American politics. Hubris runs in the family, in fact; both the right and left have a habit of telling us what the world thinks and why.

Sometimes, though, it’s worth asking experts outside America what they think of the world’s problems.

Rohan Gunaratna is an international terrorism expert. Unlike many U.S. terrorism experts who sit in air-conditioned offices thousands of miles from where the terrorists live and kill, he spends his life studying real terrorist groups.

Gunaratna has talked to failed suicide bombers, helped Afghan officials set up their own terrorist research center and written about his research and experiences (in at least 12 books, including the best-selling "Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror," published by Columbia University Press).

He testified before the 9/11 commission. His work is universally studied — even by terrorists. A Sri Lankan by birth, Gunaratna heads the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.

Gunaratna has no interest in American politics or who will win the next election for president. But he is concerned about what America does in combating transnational terrorism. And here is what he thinks.

There are three vital fronts in the war against Al Qaeda. After escaping Afghanistan in 2001, elements of Al Qaeda holed up in the Pakistan border region. "The survivors split into two wings," Gunaratna recently explained to the Los Angles Times. "Internal operations ran combat in Pakistan and Afghanistan, [helping the Taliban regroup]. … External operations oversaw attacks elsewhere."

Most of the international efforts showed only a modicum of success. Iraq was an exception. Groups in the region aligned themselves with Usama bin Laden; one even renamed itself "Al Qaeda in Iraq."

Exploiting the poor security conditions in the country, they targeted U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians with a vengeance. Pipelines were set up to import foot soldiers from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa into Iraq. After its humiliation in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda has staked its reputation on demonstrating it can make America fail in Iraq. Iraq, without question, has become a central front in the war against Al Qaeda.

This stark conclusion comes from an expert who thought the American effort in Iraq was a mistake from the beginning.

"The direct and immediate threat to the United States, its allies and other friendly nations is terrorism, not Iraq," he told the International Herald Tribune in 2003. "A U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to disarm the regime of Saddam Hussein, especially if it is seen to lack the authority of the U.N. Security Council, will weaken the international campaign to counter Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups."

But that was then, now is now. There are no do-overs in war. Today Iraq is the central front. He believes leaving Al Qaeda to prosper in the country would be a disaster.

That said, Gunaratna also believes winning in Afghanistan and Pakistan is vital, as well. Both countries might be able to keep the Taliban confined to tribal regions, but leaving Al Qaeda to continue to operate there would be a mistake.

Bin Laden has taken globalization to heart. Unable to effectively manage a global terror network, he has taken to outsourcing — inspiring extremist groups to adopt terrorist tactics.

It’s not just the occasional bin Laden video on al-Jazeera that’s the problem. Bin Laden’s propaganda factories are cranking out a steady stream of material — hundreds of DVDs and videos that are finding their way throughout the Muslim world. Increasingly distributed through the Internet, they tell the disaffected whom to hate and how to kill them.

Researchers working at Rohan’s center at Nanyang Technological University have identified a few dozen Web sites that are Hate Central. These sites provide the tools for individuals and groups to self-radicalize.

Of course, policing the Internet and eliminating the Web-based threat is impractical — maybe impossible. Getting online and waging a battle of ideas in the chat rooms is a better tactic.

Better still is ripping out the heart of the movement. That means driving Al Qaeda out of Pakistan, humiliating its members, ripping any legitimacy away from its evil doctrines and giving it no place else to go — no safe harbor. That requires winning on all three fronts in the long war.

Politicians running for president may want to pick their wars. Experts fighting in the trenches of global struggle against transnational terrorism — the ones who live in the real world — realize America doesn’t have that luxury.

James Jay Carafano, Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), recently visited with Rohan Gunaratna at his research center in Singapore.

James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies  The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JJCarafano.