Hirsh: Debunking Al Qaeda

The capture of Ibn Al-Shaykhal-Libi was said to be one of the first big breakthroughs in the war against Al Qaeda. It was also the start of the post-9/11 mythologizing of the terror group. According to the official history of the Bush administration, al-Libi (a nom de guerre meaning "the Libyan") was the most senior Al Qaeda leader captured during the war in Afghanistan after running a training camp there for Osama bin Laden. Al-Libi was sent on to Egypt, where under interrogation he was said to have given up crucial information linking Saddam Hussein to the training of Al Qaeda operatives in chemical and biological warfare. His story was later used publicly by Secretary of State Colin Powell to justify the war in Iraq to the world.

The reality, as we have learned since—far too late, of course, to avert the war in Iraq—is that al-Libi made up that story of Iraq connections, probably because he was tortured by the Egyptians (or possibly Libyan intelligence officers who worked with them). But there's even more to this strange tale that hasn't been revealed. According to Numan bin-Uthman, a former fellow jihadi of al-Libi's who has left the movement and is based in London, al-Libi was never a member of Al Qaeda at all. Moreover, Uthman says, he's "90 percent sure" that al-Libi, who he says is dying of tuberculosis, has been released by the United States to Libya. (A CIA spokesman said he could not comment.) According to Uthman, al-Libi was a small-time member of a broader movement of jihadists who—inspired by Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian killed during the CIA-backed mujahedin fight against the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan—came to fight the Soviets in the 1980s and later, trained, to redirect jihad back to their home regimes. The so-called Khaldin camp that al-Libi helped run dated from this movement. "I know him personally. He's not a member of Al Qaeda," Uthman, an anti-Kaddafi political activist who is considered credible by other Libyan exiles, told NEWSWEEK by phone from London.

It seems very likely that the Khaldin camp hosted Al Qaeda figures to whom al-Libi was linked but perhaps in the loose way that Uthman describes. (Others who trained at Khaldin, like Abdurahman Khadr, a 20-year-old Canadian released from Guantánamo in 2003, have given testimony backing up Uthman's description of the camp.) Certainly al-Libi is looking less and less like the fearsome "bin Laden lieutenant" he was made out to be. And we find this sort of debunking has occurred with many Al Qaeda "lieutenants" whose gauzy reputations are reduced to pill-sized smallness once the culprits themselves fall into our hands.

Another one of these key figures was said to be Abu Zubaydah, who was captured in Pakistan in March 2002. As NEWSWEEK first reported in “ The Debate Over Torture ” more than 18 months ago, the CIA's difficult interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, who was resisting standard questioning methods, set in motion a long train of Justice Department and White House legal memos justifying harsh treatment of terror suspects. This legal discussion ultimately contributed to the tougher interrogation standards applied at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. Was all this effort at extracting information worth the blight to America's honor and reputation? Probably not when it comes to Abu Zubaydah. As former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind writes in his new book, "The One Percent Doctrine," the person whom George W. Bush characterized as a "top operative plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States" was discovered to be more of a low-level messenger man, and a slightly daft one as well. "It was like calling someone who runs a company's in-house travel department the COO," one CIA official said, according to Suskind.

Some U.S. officials are disputing Suskind's account. But it is true that the more we learn about Al Qaeda, the more we have to conclude that the group contained a lot more Abu Zubaydah types than it did Muhammad Attas. In contrast to the truly terrifying Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker, and 9/11 master strategist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—both of whom took terrorism to new levels of competence—most Al Qaeda operatives look more like life's losers, the kind who in a Western culture would join street gangs or become a petty criminals but who in the jihadi world could lose themselves in a "great cause," making some sense of their pinched, useless lives. Like Richard Reid, who tried to set his shoelace on fire. Or Ahmed Ressam, who bolted in a panic from his car at the U.S. border during an alleged mission to bomb the L.A. airport. Or Iyman Faris, who comically believed he could bring down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch. Or the crazed Zacarias Moussaoui, who was disowned even by bin Laden. Then you've got the hapless Lackawanna Six, and, more recently, the Toronto 17, who were thinking about pulling off an Oklahoma City-style attack with ammonium nitrate—or perhaps just beheading the prime minister—but hadn't quite gotten around to it.

Were these people potentially lethal? Yes. One doesn't have to graduate at the top of one's class to set off explosives in a satchel on a subway. Were most of them capable of hatching a minutely timed scheme to obtain and detonate a nuclear bomb in a city, or launch a biowarfare attack? No. "In an open system like a network, the bumbler level is always going to be high because of the ease of entry," says John Arquilla, an intelligence expert at the Naval Postgraduate School. "That's how someone like [American Taliban supporter] John Walker Lindh can walk into the high councils of Al Qaeda and meet bin Laden. And recently the bumbler factor has gone up considerably." Ironically the most competent "Al Qaeda" leader in recent years, at least since the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 2003, was Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, who came close to subverting the American project and creating a sectarian war in Iraq. But he did that largely on his own, facilitated by the fortuitous conjoining of Iraq with the war on terror. Before the Iraq war Zarqawi was a nobody, hiding out in northern Iraq, largely unconnected to Saddam's regime even though Colin Powell, in his infamous Feb. 5, 2003, United Nations Security Council speech, claimed that Saddam had given Zarqawi "harbor." And he was not part of bin Laden's group. Would he have attacked U.S. interests at some point, somewhere? Almost certainly. But the Iraq invasion gave Zarqawi a chance to blossom on his own as a jihadi.

Another figure named by Powell in that U.N. speech, Abu Atiya, was said to be the Zarqawi and Al Qaeda link to terror networks in Europe. But according to a French investigation documented in Le Figaro newspaper, he turned out to be a minor figure. "If he was so important, then why was he returned to his home country, Jordan, and released at one point?" says John Sifton of Human Rights Watch, who has closely tracked the fate of high-level "ghost" detainees. "He does not fit the profile of high-level Al Qaeda terrorists. Neither do any of these supposed Al Qaeda operatives that were trumped up by administration officials in 2002 and 2003. Every single one of these stories, when subjected to the harsh light of public scrutiny, has collapsed."  Those of us who have been on the war-on-terror beat since 9/11 have been reluctant to write about Al Qaeda this way, although some of us have suspected for a long time the group was never all that it was cracked up to be. Especially in the immediate wake of the horrific but brilliantly coordinated attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, it seemed absurdly risky—if not downright unpatriotic—to suggest that perhaps Muhammad Atta was the best bin Laden had, his Hail Mary pass, so to speak.

But there was substantial evidence showing that, up to 9/11, Al Qaeda could barely hold its act together, that it was a failing group, hounded from every country it tried to roost in (except for the equally lunatic Taliban-run Afghanistan). That it didn't represent the mainstream view even in the jihadi community, much less the rest of the Muslim world. This is the reality of the group that the Bush administration has said would engage us in a "long war" not unlike the cold war—the group that has led to the transformation of U.S. foreign policy and America's image in the world. The intelligence community generally agrees that the number of true A-list Al Qaeda operatives out there around the time of 9/11 was no more than about 1,000, perhaps as few as 500, most in and around Afghanistan. It is also fairly well established that bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were engaged in a fierce pre-9/11 struggle with their own meager band of followers over whether it was wise to take on the "far enemy"—the United States—when many jihadis really wanted to engage the "near enemy," their national regimes, like Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

The ultimate tragedy of the Iraq war was not only that it diverted the U.S. from the knockout blow against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan—the deaths of bin Laden and Zawahiri would likely have persuaded most jihadis it was wiser to focus on the near enemy—but that Iraq also altered the outcome of Al Qaeda's internal debate, tipping it in bin Laden's favor. "Iraq ended that debate because it fused the near and the far enemy," as Arquilla puts it succinctly. America ventured into the lands of jihad and willingly offered itself as a target in place of the local regimes. And as a new cause that revived the flagging Al Qaeda movement. It is, no doubt, bin Laden's greatest victory.