Viewpoint: Algerian Terror Debacle Shows that Fighting Al-Qaeda is Like Fighting Narcos

If there's one thing last week's attack should tell us, it's that the "war on terror" isn't that different from the "war on drugs".

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If there’s one thing last week’s attack on the Algerian gas facility should tell us, it’s that the “war on terror” isn’t all that different from the “war on drugs”. Throwing money at a problem and relying on brute force doesn’t win these “wars”. Drugs are less expensive and more pure than ever; the jihadists are better armed and better prepared than ever to keep on fighting.

Assurances to the contrary notwithstanding, we have not broken the back of al-Qaeda. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the drone assassinations, the nearly $3 trillion we’ve spent on the “war on terror” has only managed to move the puddles around, from Pakistan to Yemen, from Yemen to Libya and Mali, and now Algeria.

The outcome of Syria’s civil war is too early to call, but right now it appears that the local iteration of al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, is the most potent fighting force within the armed opposition. If such a group prospers from the demise of the Assad regime, the already substantial risk to Jordan, Lebanon and even the Gulf will be escalated. Although it’s impossible to calculate the speed of contagion of the al-Qaeda virus, it’s always best to prepare for the worst.

What we miss in our often static discussion of how to combat this phenomenon is that al-Qaeda is as insubstantial as a thought. It doesn’t maintain bases or a headquarters, it has no fixed organization or chain of command. There is no living evil genius behind it; its inspirational ideologues are long dead, and its military doctrine is lifted from Mao and Ho Chi Minh.

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We may have captured the mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, but that mattered little to al-Qaeda. He was expendable, no different than the other  of the movement’s “martyrs”. We killed Osama bin Laden, but can we point to a single revenge attack? Granted, drone assassinations may have eliminated most of al-Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas, but like any smart guerilla group, the survivors have relocated.

Our main enemy in Afghanistan, the “Haqqani Network,” is all but immune from drones because they avoid cell phones and live in densely populated areas where we can’t drop missiles on them. When we leave Afghanistan, the Haqqanis will remain, and their influence is likely to see a sharp increase.

Last week’s Algerian attack is a stark reminder that drone missile assassinations, occupation, peddling democracy, and attempting to impose our rule of law isn’t working. The drones aren’t even going to provide us the space to prop up an Afghan government. Nor will they subdue the militants living in the mountains of Yemen. The drones are our version of Conrad’s man-of-war shelling the African jungle in blind hope that the natives will conclude that resistance is hopeless. We have to accept that classic warfare of position and occupation won’t beat militant Islam. The believers don’t care whether we take their capitals or not. Jerusalem has been occupied since 1967, and that fact has only managed to invigorate militant Islam. The enemy also doesn’t care whether we destroy their conventional armies. Crushing Saddam’s army in 2003 turned out to be an opportunity for Iraq’s militants to learn asymmetrical warfare and the use of such unconventional weapons as car bombs and improvised explosive devices.

Algeria also reminds us that it’s time we accept that after more than a decade of war, we’re no closer to understanding the enemy. Even if the French take northern Mali, the militants will only scatter in the desert, and wait for the French to run out of money and patience — call it the Afghanistan model.

(MORE: 3 Americans Die in Algeria Attack, 7 Survive)

Our intelligence apparatus has failed to prepare us to deal with an elusive enemy. We sent blank checks to the National Security Agency and the CIA on a promise that drones, supercomputers, and sophisticated algorithms would churn through every call and email and give us a head-up of the next big attack. But as the attacks on our Benghazi consulate and the Algerian gas field remind us, the militants have learned to confound our technology.

Whether as a result of technology or hubris, we have been blinded to some simple truths: The Libyan state no longer exists; the Sahara and its southern reaches are a no-man’s land, an open invitation to al-Qaeda; and the Algerian civil war is not over. I can only imagine how else it’s blinded us. How certain are we that Saudi Arabia’s main oil facilities at Ras Tannura and Abqaiq are not vulnerable to a military-style attack as occurred at Ain Amenas?

One day militant Islam will burn itself out, like any other millennial cult. But in the meantime, we should be changing our game, adapting as fast as al-Qaeda does. If we learn to fight intelligently, and pull everyone else on board with us, we stand a lot better chance of killing this virus.

For a start, we need to deprive the militants of their oxygen – money. An important part of their funding comes from the Gulf, among wealthy fellow travelers who won’t personally join the jihad, but feel good about themselves when they fund others to do so. (The same people who backed bin Laden’s operations in Afghanistan in the ’80s.) These people need to be reined in, which is something that can be done only by the Gulf monarchies.

(MORE: At Least 13 Suspected Al-Qaeda Men Killed in Yemen)

Then, we need to speed up our withdrawal from Afghanistan, letting the chips fall where they may. Firing missiles at the Taliban isn’t going to get us anything other than more bad propaganda — the militants thrive off images of civilian casualties from these raids.

Finally, we have to seriously prepare for other failing states falling to the militants. Rather than invading godforsaken desert territories, we need to throw up an impermeable cordon sanitaire around the contaminated parts – close off air links, aid, commerce, banking. That’ll force the crazies in on themselves, make them understand that what they’ve wrought won’t stand. If we’d used air strikes to closed the passes from Pakistan into Afghanistan in 1998, after the attacks on our embassies in East Africa, the Taliban may have reconsidered the wisdom of hosting al-Qaeda.

But whatever we do, we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing. As in the war on drugs, it’s time adjust our tactics and strategies to the facts.

MORE: As Algeria Body Count Grows, Officials Analyze Terrorist Threat — and Whether the Attack Had Inside Help