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by Sharmine Narwani
I looked under my bed last night. Just in case. And don’t tell me you haven’t either. With Al Qaeda popping up in new countries every day, it seemed prudent to make sure a spanking new Salafi jihadist cell wasn’t being formed under my California Kingsize mattress.

Known Al Qaeda host nations: Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan, Jordan – purportedly even Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Syria, Xinjiang in China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Mindanao in the Philippines, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Libya, Nigeria, Tunisia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Dagestan, Jammu and Kashmir, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Azerbaijan, Eritrea, Uganda, Ethiopia, and – drum roll – the United States.

Actually, with Al Qaeda’s strong internet recruitment abilities, let’s just scratch that last paragraph and grandly state that this entrepreneurial Salafi franchise is in potentially as many nations as McDonald’s.

Afghanistan was the start-up incubator. Operating out of a cave and strapped to a dialysis machine, the canny Saudi-born businessman Osama bin Laden took advantage of the hospitality of fellow Salafists — the Taliban — to engineer a magnificent American investment in his franchise, and grow a global brand. And so, thanks to the US’s penchant for disproportionate reaction, a rag-tag group of Saudi-funded jihadists hiding out in rough Afghani terrain with a small cadre of operatives scattered around the world, became the new hot stock overnight.

And like any investor worth his salt, the United States looked to an untapped market — Iraq — where it then launched its first world-class subsidiary. Yes, that’s right. There was no Al Qaeda in Iraq before the Bush administration initiated its ill-fated market penetration. Not under the watch of the fiercely-secular dictator Saddam Hussein, certainly.

But then American troops swooped in and Al Qaeda, Iraq was born. Every Salafi jihadist still smarting from the US occupation of sacred Muslim soil in Saudi Arabia during Iraq War I — the raison d’etre of Al Qaeda — now flocked into the new Iraqi battlefield to prevent a second occupation.

And when the US “surged” in Iraq and Afghanistan, they went elsewhere to revamp, re-arm and recruit. Hence, the presence in Pakistan. And when we “drone-d” in Pakistan, they swarmed to Yemen and Somalia. And when we “funded” Yemen, they reared up in Jordan.

Ergo, every time we make a move in the Muslim world, we invest in Al Qaeda’s nimble fund-and-recruit franchise enterprise. In the world of venture capital, the US would be akin to a Greylock, Softbank or Kleiner-Perkins.

This is serious business. Al Qaeda and its copycats threaten not only our way of life, but that of most Muslims in whose nations we wage our silly battles. And after nine years of this, each and every time there is a new Salafi-related development in the Muslim world, we still react with the same bluster, bullying and stunning lack of creativity as we did when we embarrassingly threatened to “smoke them out of their caves” that first time.

Last July, building on the work of the acclaimed 9-11 Commission, the National Security Preparedness Group (NSPG) was formed to tackle changing security threats to the United States. A bi-partisan Who’s Who of distinguished security experts, the group includes terrorism and insurgency authority Dr. Bruce Hoffman who recently authored an insightful opinion piece in the Washington Post entitled “Al Qaeda has a new strategy. Obama needs one too.”

Hoffman reveals how a “shrewdly opportunistic” Al Qaeda is playing to the US’s weaknesses with only a handful of operatives, while the United States is “stuck in a pattern of belated responses.” Having failed to recognize Al Qaeda’s changing strategies, this systemic failure in US intelligence, security and military centers is doomed to continue unless we re-jig things. But I would argue that Hoffman and the NSPG are also doomed to fail if they do not consider a broader reshuffle of US Mideast policy to keep future Salafi groups at bay.

What is the solution? Look at it as a business venture, if you will.

A well-crafted exit strategy: Get out as quickly as possible without leaving a worse mess behind as we did in Afghanistan I and Iraq I.

Distribution: Hand over ops to sovereign states. And if we are going to fund them, make sure the funds are going to the right fights. Sometimes these are not military confrontations, but instead education, economic progress, human rights and democracy. Which means that we will have to stop propping up dictators in the Middle East, i.e., most of our closest allies, and start standing firmly behind genuine efforts for reform.

That may mean Hamas in Palestine, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – but you know what? Let them figure it out for themselves. If the Brotherhood, known as the Ikhwan, had been allowed to participate in Egyptian elections decades ago, the whole Middle East may have gone through and come out the other end of “political Islam,” which incidentally isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Think Turkey.

And we don’t have to take on the Mideast’s problems ourselves. Distribute the workload and delegate responsibility to other influential nations who have more nuanced relationships with regional players — some EU nations, Russia, China, Turkey, India and Qatar come to mind.

Partnerships: As hard as this may be for a US administration to stomach, this may be the time to invoke the “your enemy’s enemy is your friend” doctrine of foreign policy. Which effectively means that we need to partner with Al Qaeda’s biggest regional targets and foes. Who are they? Think Shiites. That means Iran – a country that rang alarm bells when the Taliban rose to power, although we didn’t listen then. A country that has offered and delivered help during our worst times in Afghanistan and Iraq, even though we showed no gratitude. More importantly, a country that has been on the receiving end of the same kinds of Salafi attacks by Al Qaeda supported groups as have US troops.

Iran leads a regional bloc of nations and groups included on our dated State Department terrorism lists. We need to start to distinguish between Islamist groups with nationalist agendas (Hezbollah) and those with “cosmic” plans (Al Qaeda) because Iran, Hezbollah, Syria and Hamas have all been under Salafi jihadist threat of some sort this past year. They would make smart, resourceful and powerful regional allies – unlike our alliances with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both supremely impotent despite their claims otherwise, and boasting zero street cred, unlike the former bloc.

Troubleshoot: Deal swiftly and creatively with the Palestinian issue. This is the one regional issue that will continue to be exploited effectively by Al Qaeda and its franchises – the crux of Bin Laden’s most recent audiotape message last weekend. Open up Gaza’s Rafah border with Egypt and start physically monitoring the delivery of widespread humanitarian aid to the 1.5 million Gazans living under siege – we will build instant goodwill with Palestinians at the negotiating table and remind Arabs of their hopes in a pre-Cairo Obama.

If we can move mountains and send manpower to Haiti in a nanosecond, we can loosen a crumby little border in Rafah, surely?

Strike Deals: Sponsor a timelined Palestinian-Israeli agreement on final solution issues – borders, refugees, sovereignty, natural resources and Jerusalem. Enough with the spineless pussy-footing around the hard issues that has been “all process and no peace” for 18 years now. Utilize J-Street and other sane voices in the American Jewish community to back up a new, firm approach to Israel – the Jewish state, the occupying entity, needs to make some significant concessions for any peaceful resolution of the conflict . Or…get out of peacemaking altogether and let the Palestinians and Israelis find their own way to a One State Solution. Colonial-settler movements never last, and the establishment of a single democratic state consisting of Jews, Muslims and Christians is the natural, organic direction of things without our overbearing, one-sided participation.

And table the failed Iran nuclear talks to deal with the more pressing issues of Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan where both the US and the Islamic Republic have an “existential” stake and share much common ground. A focused, mutually-beneficial game plan here will create the necessary trust to tackle the nuclear issue further down the road, which will in turn diffuse a regional nuclear race.

As any savvy CEO will tell you, don’t say or do anything unless there are clear quantifiable and qualitative benefits to be reaped. From his lips to Obama’s ears…

While it looks like Al Qaeda is spreading like wildfire, the fact is, it isn’t. Their numbers have dwindled in Afghanistan and Iraq, and their popularity has generally plummeted amongst Mideast populations. But there is a marked increase in the number of Salafi, jihad-minded individuals who are fed-up with the status quo and are happy to risk life and limb. Every silly move we make – and we really know how to do silly – beefs up the Al Qaeda brand and extends the franchise.

So in places like Yemen and Jordan, where local governments have until recently played a careful balancing act and kept their Salafists under wraps, one false American move threatens — always — to crack open a can of worms. Think healthcare reform and Teabaggers for a closer-to-home analogy.

And it only takes one bus bombing, one aircraft explosion, one restaurant pipe-bomb to level economies, cripple tourism, incite insurgencies and create an environment of fear. We need to exit these battles and fundamentally alter our disingenuous Middle East policies to allow anger to subside and reform to flourish.

Or I will have to check my closets next.

First published on January 27, 2010 at the Huffington Post.

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