The dwarf known as al-Qaida

Published December 2, 2004 8:36PM (EST)

In the Los Angeles Times earlier this week, journalist Dirk Laabs wrote that the ill-defined al-Qaida network is now more a pint-sized peril than a towering global threat. He cited the recent findings of the BKA, Germany's esteemed federal police service that battled the Red Army Faction terrorist organization in the 1970s and '80s -- only to realize by the late '90s that the terrorists' propaganda campaign, magnified by the media, had kept the BKA in vigorous pursuit of the group long after its decline.

Could the global battle against al-Qaida now be following the same storyline?

"This month, at the BKA's annual conference," Laabs wrote, "Germany's top investigators and international experts discussed what they had discovered since Sept. 11, 2001, about al-Qaida and the international Islamist terrorist network. The main thing they have learned is that there is less than meets the eye. Yes, al-Qaida was once centralized, structured and powerful, but that was before the United States pulverized its camps and leadership in Afghanistan.

"In other words, this battle in the war on terrorism might already be over. It's as an ex-CIA agent once said: 'I quit the agency at the end of the Cold War because I was tired of politicians making me describe the Soviet Union as a 20-foot giant -- when it was really only a dwarf.'"

It would seem that the BKA's findings, as reported by Laabs, affirm the Bush administration's claims during the presidential campaign that "75 percent" of the al-Qaida leadership had been wiped out. But whether or not the BKA has it right is anybody's guess; there is still far from a consensus on the current stature of the terrorist organization -- or even on who or what the "al-Qaida network" really is.

That the threat posed by al-Qaida has been a handy political football is about the only thing of which we can be sure. Indeed, the BKA's further conclusions underscore with Rumsfeldian certainty how much is known about the unknowns:

"All too often investigators have fallen for myths -- many times fed by the terrorists themselves. The BKA has constructed profiles of 60 radical Islamists. 'There was no pattern, no model ... every activist had individual motives to become radical,' a German investigator said.

"But being less structured doesn't mean the terrorists are less dangerous or easier to stop. Quite the contrary. The smaller the fish, the tighter the net needed to catch it. 'We take every case seriously now precisely because there is no pattern,' one German investigator said. Investigators admit that 31/2 years after 9/11, they know next to nothing about the motives of Islamic terrorists."

Well, they may know at least a couple things about what makes the terrorists tick -- but if the Germans are underperforming on the al-Qaida beat, the Bush administration isn't exactly getting the highest marks, either. From the December issue of the world affairs journal "Current History":

"Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism analyst at Rand, finds that the war on terror is not going well: 'More than three years into the global war on terrorism, the United States has no clear policy' for defeating Al Qaeda."

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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