Al Qaeda mutating like a virus

Terror networks operating with renewed vigour
Iraq war helping bin Laden recruit suicide bombers

Toronto Star (Canada), June 22, 2003
Olivia Ward

In a slum neighbourhood of Casablanca last month, 14 impoverished Moroccans were set to make history.

Mostly semi-literate, they included a street vendor, a shoe repairman and at least half a dozen unemployed men in their 20s.

Hundreds of kilometres away, two well-educated, middle-class young British men of Pakistani background were also on their way to an appointment with fate, in Israel’s largest city, Tel Aviv.

And in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, at least nine Arab men were co-ordinating a deadly plan that would be carried out in complete secrecy, confounding law-enforcement authorities in the Middle East and America.

At first glance, these three groups, totalling 25 men, had little in common. But all were suicide bombers determined to carry out their goal of sowing terror among Westerners and those singled out as enemies of their extreme sects of Islam.

For the West, the message was clear: International terrorist networks are operating with renewed vigour, in spite of U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Equally disturbing, analysts say, is the fact that so many people, from such diverse backgrounds and origins, have carried out such devastating attacks in the space of a month — leaving more than 65 people dead and hundreds injured.

This, they say, is a sign that, in the second year after the devastating Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, the “war on terror” has not been won. Nor has U.S. President George W. Bush’s assertion that a “corner’s been turned” against these lethal groups been borne out.

Instead, there is evidence that the Iraq war has actually helped to strengthen and expand the networks, obscuring the advances that countries have made in bolstering their national security.

“This is a war of attrition and it’s an infinite war,” says Bruce Hoffman, director of the Rand Corporation’s Washington, D.C., office and author of Inside Terrorism.

“You can say a corner has been turned, but there’s another corner just in front of you.”

Since the fateful morning of Sept. 11, 2001, progress has undoubtedly been made against the Al Qaeda network and its leaders and operatives by American, Canadian and European anti-terrorist operations.

And reluctantly or voluntarily, Middle Eastern and Asian countries have joined in, with the loss of dozens of law enforcers’ lives.

“The real headline is that terrorism has been tentatively contained in North America and Europe,” says Jonathan Stevenson, editor of an annual strategic survey published by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

“Al Qaeda hasn’t been defeated. But since Sept. 11, there have been no more attacks in those countries, and there have been significant arrests.”

Worldwide, more than 2,000 people linked to Al Qaeda have been arrested and thousands more have been detained, questioned and sometimes brutalized.

Laws have been tightened in the West to allow more intrusive surveillance and more extensive searches. Financial rules have been changed to catch the funders of international terrorism and Internet users are being monitored as never before.

The war in Afghanistan produced vital intelligence on Al Qaeda and its plans and operatives, as Western military forces and journalists found thousands of the network’s crucial documents in bomb-blasted ruins.

Armed with this intelligence, Washington put the squeeze on countries such as Pakistan and the Philippines for information that was previously jealously guarded by those countries’ spy services. Having witnessed the fate of the Taliban, they responded swiftly.

Meanwhile, closer co-operation among Western intelligence services helped to plug some of the gaps that existed since World War II.

And the United States and other Western countries moved to end animosities within their own agencies that had caused blunders and wasted efforts.

The worldwide campaign, coupled with the Afghan war, resulted in a great leap forward in the understanding of how Al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups work.

American intelligence sources say the draconian measures have delivered significant blows to Al Qaeda and its associates, shattering their bases of operations, breaking up their financial pipelines, killing some of their leaders and putting thousands of operatives on the run.

That’s the good news.

But the bad news, delivered over the past month of spectacular killings, shows that, like a virus, Al Qaeda and its allies are fragmenting, mutating and spreading again.

Part of the problem, analysts say, was the war in Iraq, which unsurprisingly created a new wave of animosity toward the United States and Britain, acting as an effective recruiting tool among disaffected Muslims.

The failure to locate Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the existence of which were used to justify the invasion, has reinforced the belief that America was cynically “sacrificing blood for oil” in a desperately poor and barely functioning country.

But most alarming, Middle East experts say, is the sacrifice of the long-term U.S. policy of supporting secular, rather than Islamic governments in the region, leaving the way open for extremists.

“This war has been a gift to Osama bin Laden,” says Saad al-Fagih, the London-based director of the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia.

“First of all, very few people in the region supported his argument that America wanted hegemony over the Middle East. At the same time, they believed that if there were an invasion of Iraq, the Baath party and its supporters would put up a serious fight.”

However, al-Fagih says, “the fact that America actually waged war in Iraq showed that bin Laden was right. And when the Baath party supporters gave up so easily, it was a major defeat for secular Arab nationalism.”

Al Qaeda, which is fighting to install an extreme form of Islam across the Muslim world, has become an even-stronger magnet for disaffected Muslims who feel the only way of stopping Washington’s mammoth military machine is through terrorist action.

“Before Sept. 11, ” says Saudi-born al-Fagih, who has closely followed the growth of Al Qaeda, “bin Laden and the jihadi groups were separate. But those groups have now integrated themselves into the Al Qaeda strategy.”

The network, whose title means “the base,” now consists of three elements: fighters who are personally loyal to bin Laden and number up to 600; a worldwide support network of thousands who offer money, shelter and logistical help; and a new group of Islamic scholars devoted to jihad, or holy war, whose ideology attracts and inflames supporters.

Using the Internet, the Islamists are spreading their gospel to potential new recruits in the West as well as in the developing world. For some, the Internet is a gateway to membership in militant groups; for others, it’s an aid to studies they have already undertaken with local extremists.

`We must look at terrorism as a fundamental condition for international security in the 21st century’

Bruce Hoffman, author of “Inside Terrorism”

The recent Tel Aviv bombing, by two young Britons of Asian origin, was chilling evidence of the global reach of radicalism. The pair’s decision to travel halfway across the world to give their lives for a cause that was not their own — that of Palestinian sovereignty — is barely understandable to other Westerners. But they were not alone. In a recent article in the Sunday Telegraph, British Muslims who were drawn to religious schools in Damascus said they admired the Tel Aviv suicide bombing and believed it was part of a global struggle. They are among dozens who leave their homes in the British Midlands each year to study in religious schools in Muslim countries, where extreme forms of Islam are taught. “America and Britain are attempting to create a new world order by annihilating our God, but they will not be successful,” a Damascus school administrator told the newspaper. “Do not call these people suicide bombers … martyrdom is a glorious fulfillment of the requirements of Allah.” The new recruits to bin Laden’s cause represent a new generation of terrorism. “In Afghanistan, there’s no longer a military target for Al Qaeda’s enemies,” says Stevenson. “The war disrupted the comfortable physical base and eliminated a drawing card for training. But it also forced an already decentralized organization to become even more decentralized. Its members have dispersed and integrated into other societies.” Setting up cells in developing countries with inadequate law enforcement is easiest for would-be bombers. And their co-operation with local Islamist groups has created what the IISS calls “a potent transnational terrorist organization that could take a generation to dismantle.” According to intelligence reports, those currently co-operating with Al Qaeda include a spider’s web of organizations ranging from Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiya to Morocco’s Salafia Jihadia and Attakfir wal Hijra, Egypt’s Al-Jihad, and the National Islamic Front of Iran. But beyond national boundaries, Al Qaeda and its allies have found a new home in cyberspace. “Notebook computers, encryption, the Internet, multiple passports and the ease of global transportation enabled Al Qaeda to function as a `virtual’ entity that leveraged local assets — hence local knowledge — to full advantage in co-ordinating attacks in many `fields of jihad,'” said the IISS report published last month. The testing grounds for the network are countries least able to cope with terrorism. “There’s a whole list of countries with weak, under-resourced institutions that are soft targets,” says Stevenson. “They may not be as high profile as Europe and North America, but it’s possible to kill a lot of people there, including Westerners.” Security services in the Middle East and south Asia have expressed alarm at what they call the reactivation of Al Qaeda in their countries, as carrying out attacks in the West has become more difficult. But most terrorism experts, including members of American and European secret services, say the prime target for Al Qaeda and its allies remains the United States. They believe the recent attacks in Morocco and Saudi Arabia were aimed at confusing and unsettling the U.S. government. A series of communications from network operatives have made it clear that the campaign against terrorism may have hardened security in the United States, but it has also failed to soften the resolve of America’s enemies. The Saudi-owned weekly magazine al-Majalla recently published a warning from Al Qaeda that there will be “new and more severe strikes which will surprise the Americans and Israelis alike.” An earlier announcement from Mohammed al-Ablaj, described as the commander of an Al Qaeda training centre, said the group was on an “intensive strategic course to make America pay for its invasion of Iraq.” The renewed threats have moved to the top of the agenda for Western counter-terrorism officials. Tough new national security measures make it much more difficult for extremists to mount an operation on the scale of Sept. 11, but their main recent tactic, suicide bombing, is almost impossible to deter indefinitely. And, says Rand’s Hoffman, although the steps that should be undertaken are no secret to U.S. security agencies, “they have been implemented only unevenly.” He recommends a series of measures be put in force, with particular attention to suicide bombers. They include: More analysis of the infrastructure needed for bombings to take place. Developing better communications with ethnic communities that shelter would-be bombers. Monitoring all materials that could be used for homemade bombs. Reinforcing buildings and public structures against explosives and providing a higher level of emergency training for police on the beat. None of the measures, however, deals with the complex root causes of terrorism. Analysts agree that the time has come to expand the focus from physical security to issues that, if left unchecked, guarantee insecurity for the foreseeable future. “Governments around the world have spent billions in an effort to beef up national security and the war on terror,” says Irene Khan, head of Amnesty International. “But for millions of people, the real sources of insecurity are corrupt and inept systems of policing and justice, brutal repression of political dissent, severe discrimination and social inequities, extreme poverty and the spread of preventable diseases.” Some Washington theorists think the war in Iraq was partly aimed at creating a “democratic model state” within the Mideast, producing the domino effect of liberalizing the country’s neighbours. However, any transition to democracy in Baghdad now seems distant and the U.S. is mainly concerned with avoiding an Islamic government or civil war. And there are few signs that Washington will apply pressure on Saudi Arabia to end the kind of repression that is propelling disenchanted young Muslims toward Al Qaeda. Instead, there is more pressure to carry out crackdowns against suspected terrorists, many of whom are opponents of the Saudi regime. “America’s behaviour is giving more credibility to the jihadis,” says al-Fagih. “And the more loudly America accuses bin Laden of terrorist attacks, the more attractive he becomes to recruits.” Analysts point out that by globalizing the reach of terrorism, groups like Al Qaeda can quickly change the focus of their ideology at will, in pursuit of their goal of creating a massive pan-Islamic state. “The terrorism we practise is the commendable kind,” bin Laden told a PBS reporter before the war in Afghanistan. “For it is directed at the tyrants and the aggressors and the enemies of Allah — the tyrants, the traitors who commit acts of treason against their own countries and their own faith and their own Prophet and their own nation.” Nearly two years later, the end of the war on terror is nowhere in sight. “We must look at terrorism as a fundamental condition for international security in the 21st century,” says Hoffman. “The important thing in the future is not to give in to fatigue, and to have realistic expectations.”

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