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Occasional Papers | | Waging War

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Eric Sayers

The events of September 11, 2001 forced the United States of America to recognize the strategic importance that sanctuaries provided to terrorist networks like al-Qaeda. A sanctuary, or “black hole” as a recent study by the Center for Strategic Studies termed it, can be defined as a territory where a terrorist organization is able to openly operate. This territory is considered safe either because the sovereign government in which the sanctuary exists has allowed it to exist, or because the government lacks the ability to police the territory in question.[i] With regards to the actual physical location of sanctuaries, the US National Strategy for Combating Terrorism recognizes that: “physical sanctuaries can stretch across an entire sovereign state, be limited to specific ungoverned or ill-governed areas in an otherwise functioning state, or cross national borders.”[ii]

This paper will begin by focusing on the problems that terrorist sanctuaries pose to international security. The sections within the 9/11 Commission Report and the US National Strategy for Combating Terrorism that pertain to sanctuaries will be outlined and discussed.

Next, the focus will outline the specific sanctuaries al-Qaeda has been able to gain control of in the tribal regions of western Pakistan. These include both North and South Wazirisitan and Bajaur. To assistant in explaining the probable causes that led to the establishment of these sanctuaries, a brief history of the events in this region since Operation Enduring Freedom was launched in Afghanistan will be conducted.

The possible consequences of the Pakistan sanctuaries, should they be allowed to persist, will then be addressed. Their existence poses a threat both at an international level, allowing terror networks the ability to plan and train for large-scale missions similar to 9/11, and at regional level, where these safe-havens allow al-Qaeda to continually destabilize the nascent democracy of Afghanistan.

Finally, both short and long term policy options will be considered. The strategy this paper will endorse will be to, as the 9/11 Commission recommends, “keep possible terrorists insecure and on the run” in the tribal regions, while ensuring Pakistan President Musharraf remains in power.[iii]

Islamist Sanctuaries

            Terrorist organizations that are able to establish sanctuaries – where either a government allows them safe passage or does not have the ability to police the area – pose a major threat to both international and regional security. On an international level, The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (9/11 Report) outlined both the threat posed by sanctuaries as well as the areas where they could possibly emerge. The report recognized that, “a complex international terrorist operation aimed at launching a catastrophic attack cannot be mounted by just anyone in any place.”[iv] The September 11th attacks, which killed 2,973 individuals, constituted a complex international operation that was the product of years of planning. Smaller attacks, like those in Bali in 2003, Madrid in 2004, and London in 2005, were planned and executed locally. Conversely, large-scale operations like 9/11 require a number of strategic advantages that can only be obtained through access to a sanctuary. In the case of 9/11, this sanctuary was found within the weakly governed state of Afghanistan, where the Taliban leadership allowed Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network to operate. According to the 9/11 Report, the advantages that a sanctuary can offer include:

Time, space, and ability to perform competent planning and staff work; a command structure able to make necessary decisions and possessing the authority and contacts to assemble needed people, money, and materials; opportunity and space to recruit, train, and select operatives with the needed skills and dedication, providing the time and structure required to socialize them into the terrorist cause, judge their trustworthiness, and hone their skills; a logistics network able to securely manage the travel of operatives, move money, and transport resources (like explosives) where they need to go; access; reliable communications between coordinators and operatives; and opportunity to test the workability of the plan.[v]

The Commission also addressed the areas of the world that seem to be prime locations for sanctuaries. The report notes that the best areas include characteristics like, “combine rugged terrain, weak governance, room to hide or receive supplies, and low population density with a town or city near enough to allow necessary interaction with the outside world.”[vi] Some possible areas mentioned in the report include: the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, the Arabian Peninsula, Southeast Asia, and West Africa.[vii]

At the regional level, sanctuaries can also pose a significant threat to the stability of nascent democracies. The US National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, released in October of 2006, stresses the regional importance of sanctuaries: “Our terrorist enemies are striving to claim a strategic country as a haven for terror.  From this base, they could destabilize the Middle East […].”[viii]  This has been evident in Iraq, where Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s organization, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, was able to operate openly in Fallujah until November of 2004, and where Sunni insurgents continue to organize from the al-Anbar Province in western Iraq. These regions have provided the Sunni insurgency with many of the important advantages that were noted in the 9/11 Report.[ix] This is also the case in Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda and remnants of the Taliban, after fleeing U.S. forces during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, relocated to the tribal regions along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. From this sanctuary, al-Qaeda has been able to continually launch destabilizing attacks into Afghanistan and then retreat across the Pakistan border where Coalition forces cannot pursue them.[x]

Thomas Donnelly, Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, believes that the object of U.S. strategy should be to deny sanctuaries due to the fact that, “as they grow they assume many of the traditional qualities of a military force, even of a nation-state.”[xi] Recent events have seemingly proven Donnelly correct, as the recruiting, training, planning, and organizing elements vital for the maintenance of an effective fighting force are all afforded to a terrorist network in control of a sanctuary. Furthermore, sanctuaries established recently in both Pakistan and Iraq have possessed qualities of a nation-state, just as Donnelly warns, both with governing structures and declared state-like names. In Pakistan, al-Qaeda has declared the establishment of The Islamic Emirate of Waziristan and set up a governing Shura council.[xii] The same has occurred in Iraq, where al-Qaeda’s governing body, the Mujahideen Shura Council, has declared the Islamic State of Iraq within the Sunni triangle.[xiii] The establishment of governing institutions allows Islamic militants to consolidate and legitimize their power within the region. As this occurs, and the Islamists ties to the region and community strengthen, it only becomes more difficult to mitigate the problem posed by the sanctuary.

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