Sunday, June 14, 2009

Counting al Qaeda

Something that I meant to blog last week and totally forgot about: one of my weekly podcast is the 'Political Scene' from the New Yorker. It's just a few journalists chatting, but they are pros and know their stuff. Last week, in the wake of Obama's Cairo speech, they were discussing US policy and the 'Muslim world'. One of the speakers was New Yorker correspondent Lawrence Wright who I still think has written one of the better books on al Qaeda: The Looming Tower. Wright spent years interviewing spooks, Islamist activists, retired Jihadis, family members of still active Jihadis, local journalists and the like around the world. He clearly has good contacts, and notes in this podcast that he was recently told by Egyptian intelligence that they believe the core of al Qaeda, now mainly based in Pakistan number now below 200 people. Even the CIA number them only between 300 and 500. These numbers don't presumably include any of the affiliates who have adopted the al-Qaeda monniker in more recent years, such as the GSPC in Algeria, but does suggest that for all the weaknesses in US policy towards the Taliban in Afghanistan, the coalition (and Pakistanis) are having some success at keeping al Qaeda's central organisers suppressed.

Wright does make the very interesting point though, that the "Af-Pak" insurgency is become "proletarianized" and the Taliban is taking on a class distinction that wasn't clear before. Landless peasants are joining the Taliban and fighting against the landed class. If the conflict becomes progressively influenced by socio-economic factors, this is a major policy failure as it provides the insurgency with a moral legitimacy that it didn't previously possess.

You can listen directly to the podcast here. Wright's interesting comments begin at about 7.40.

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