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Al Qaeda As Hydra

In ancient Greek mythology, the Hydra was a serpent-like beast with numerous heads and poisonous breath that guarded the entrance to the underworld, and was killed by the Greek hero Heracles (Hercules in Roman mythology) as one of his Twelve Labors. In one version of the story Heracles covered his mouth and nose with a cloth to protect himself from the poisonous fumes and fired flaming arrows into the Hydra's lair to draw it out. He then confronted it, wielding a harvesting sickle but as he cut off each of its heads he found that two grew back. Realizing that he could not defeat the Hydra in this way, Heracles called on his nephew Iolaus who came upon the idea of using a burning firebrand to scorch the neck stumps after decapitation. As Heracles cut off each head Iolaus burned the open stump leaving the hydra dead until only its one immortal head remained which Heracles placed under a great rock on the sacred way between Lerna and Elaius.

In many ways, the story of the Hydra illustrates the problems in confronting the entity known as "Al Qaeda" today. Lack of definition has complicated United States efforts in coming to grips with Al Qaeda. If Al Qaeda represents the primary, or at least the most visible, opponent of the United States in the War on Terror its precise nature remains unclear. From various sources it can be ascertained that Al Qaeda is, variously, either a terrorist group, a stateless network of terrorists that represents a radical movement in the Islamic world, a venture capitalist firm that sponsors a terror network of networks, not a terrorist group at all but a worldwide insurgency, or perhaps it has evolved to the point where it is not an entity at all but a radical Islamic idea or philosophy. Each of these definitions represents a different head of the Hydra that is Al Qaeda. Each must be destroyed individually.

Understanding the differences among them is critical if the United States is to develop a clear strategy for victory in the War on Terror. Each of the various definitions - or heads of the Hydra -invokes a different strategy for its defeat. Failure on the part of the United States to employ the correct strategic approach invites failure overall. Ultimately, in order to defeat Al Qaeda as a precursor to winning the War on Terror it may be necessary to accept several conditions: That al Qaeda as Hydra is a non-state entity that possesses elements of each of the definitions above; that it is constantly evolving its methods, tactics, and philosophy, i.e., the very essence of what it is; that it is very successful in attracting adherents; and that it may represent the forerunner of both terrorism and future warfare in the information age.

As the United States has focused the majority of its efforts against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq, Al Qaeda has continued to spread its concept to other nations. As it confronts Al Qaeda globally the United States would be well advised to remember the lessons of the Hydra:

First, Heracles had to protect himself while drawing the Hydra out so he could confront it.

Second, Heracles did not succeed alone - he required the assistance of Iolaus to kill the Hydra.

Third, as he cut off each head he had to ensure that it could not grow back.

Finally, the last head was immortal, which he buried under a rock, showing that although the Hydra could not be completely eliminated, it could be convincingly defeated so that it could never rise again.

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