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Oil and globalization fuel Al Qaeda terror network (+video)

President Obama touts the killing of Osama bin Laden as a major blow to Al Qaeda leadership. Mitt Romney says the terrorist network remains a major threat. They're both right. Middle East oil and the forces of globalization continue to fuel Al Qaeda offshoots around the world.

By Steve Yetiv / October 25, 2012

President Obama, key cabinet members, and members of the national security team monitor the mission to get Osama bin Laden at the White House, May 1, 2011. Op-ed contributor Steve Yetiv says combating globalized terror 'starts with targeting the circumstances...that fuel terrorism....[T]he next American president must work to decrease world oil dependence by investing in renewable energy.'

Pete Souza/The White House/AP/file


Norfolk, Va.

Mitt Romney has repeatedly argued that even though Osama Bin Laden is dead, Al Qaeda remains a major threat to American security, while President Obama has described Al Qaeda’s leadership as decimated. Who’s right?

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COMMENTARY: Stephen Walt analyzes the many complex and vitally important issues underlying US-Middle East policy as part of the American Conversation Essentials series.

In fact, they are both right. Al Qaeda’s leadership is decimated, and the Obama team deserves much credit. But Al Qaeda has also splintered into affiliates and offshoots that keep bouncing back, like a Whac-A-Mole game. Al Qaeda can be repressed as Mr. Obama suggests, but it is hard for any US president to completely eliminate the terror network – and Americans should know why.

A large part of the reason is oil and globalization.

Many people have commented on the link between oil and terror, but what is more interesting is how oil and globalization have worked together to abet terrorism. The overlapping oil and globalization eras have produced circumstances that helped create and now still buttress the Al Qaeda phenomenon.

In the Afghanistan war of the 1980s, both private and government monies from oil-rich Persian Gulf countries supported Osama bin Laden’s “Afghan Arabs,” including their recruitment, housing, communications, and training when they were fighting the invading Russians. These revenues also helped bolster the Taliban, which housed Al Qaeda and still cooperates with it, and helped Pakistan build nuclear capabilities that both Mr. Romney and Obama believe could be stolen by terrorists and militants.

But Al Qaeda could not have become a transnational force without the interconnectedness of globalization. Cultural and economic globalization gave Al Qaeda access to the global highways and side roads it needed to spread around the world, set up shop in dozens of countries, communicate at far distances, and plan large-scale terrorist attacks.

These pathways continue to allow Al Qaeda’s affiliates and offshoots to play the Whac-A-Mole game, popping up here and there. Oil money remains vital to their operations. While it’s too soon to tell how bin Laden’s death will affect such funding, it would be foolish to assume that it will end.

Terrorists also rail against US support for oil-rich regimes such as Saudi Arabia, and mistakenly believe that America wants to “steal” Middle East oil. In fact, the United States and its firms have barely even cashed in on oil contracts in Iraq.

Meanwhile, worldwide communications help terrorists convey their negative narrative. According to numerous polls of Muslim countries over the past decade, Al Qaeda’s message has weakened substantially, but it still carries weight with millions of people.

While oil has fueled terrorism, globalization has offered terrorists vulnerable outlets for attack. In a more connected world, just a handful of angry men can wreak havoc, which is partly what makes the Al Qaeda threat so hard to eliminate.


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