Beirut, Lebanon – The groups are small, little known and highly militant with ideologies similar to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. They have struck around the world, carrying out suicide bombings in Morocco, kidnapping civilians in Iraq and attacking Western residential compounds in Saudi Arabia.
The emergence of these groups is making the fight against terrorism more challenging. Instead of targeting one enemy – al-Qaeda – the West and its allies now face many “al-Qaedas,” splinter groups that are mostly unrelated to each other but bound by the same hatred of the West -especially the United States and its allies, including Israel.
“It’s like McDonald’s giving out franchises,” said Dia’a Rashwan, an Egyptian expert on militant groups. “All they have to do is follow the company’s manual. They don’t consult with headquarters every time they want to produce a meal.”
A key conclusion in the September 11 commission report put out last month was that even though al-Qaeda has been weakened, these imitator groups pose a “catastrophic threat” to the United States.
“The enemy is not just ‘terrorism’, some generic evil,” said the report.
“The catastrophic threat at this moment in history is more specific. It is the threat posed by Islamist terrorism – especially the al-Qaeda network, its affiliates and its ideology.”
“The second enemy is gathering, and will menace Americans and American interests long after bin Laden and his cohorts are killed or captured,” the report said.
Two recent major sweeps against suspected al-Qaeda-linked suspects in Pakistan and Britain have dealt a further blow to bin Laden’s network. At least 20 people have been detained in Pakistan in the past month, and Britain is holding 11 men from raids Tuesday. British police on Thursday announced the arrest of another man, wanted in the United States for allegedly helping finance terrorism.
Yet bin Laden is still able to rattle the United States. That was highlighted last week when US Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge warned of possible terrorist attacks against “iconic” financial institutions in New York, Washington and Newark, New Jersey. That is consistent with bin Laden’s strategy to strike at US financial targets.
The different “franchises” act under different names. The group behind last month’s abduction of four Jordanians called itself “Mujahedeen of Iraq, the Group of Death”. “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” is the umbrella group for militants in the Saudi kingdom. A group calling itself “Mujahedeen of the Victorious Sect” battled American troops in the Iraqi city of Fallujah.
Some attacks in different countries have been blamed on one group or person, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a former commander for bin Laden.
Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, is suspected in about a dozen high-profile attacks in Iraq, including last year’s bombing of the UN headquarters. Moroccan authorities believe he may have helped guide the Madrid train bombings in March.
But for the most part, the groups are believed to be independent. Although they don’t consult with each other, they sometimes imitate tactics that have proved successful and brought publicity to other groups.
For instance, on March 31, Iraqi mobs dragged the burned corpses of four American contractors through the restive town of Fallujah. About a month later, four Saudi militants dragged the body of an American victim from the bumper of their car through the Saudi city of Yanbu.
In recent months, more than 70 foreigners have been kidnapped by insurgents in Iraq in a campaign aimed at pushing out international troops and companies backing US troops and reconstruction efforts. Several have been decapitated or shot. In June, Saudi militants kidnapped an American engineer working for Apache helicopter maker Lockheed Martin and later beheaded him.
“It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if kidnappings are being successful in pressuring companies to leave Iraq … that similar tactics applied to Saudi Arabia will encourage expatriate workers in that country to leave and make that country more unstable,” said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East editor for Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessments magazine in London.
Experts say the pre-September 11 al-Qaeda is different from today’s al-Qaeda. In the past, the network operated more like an organisation with a head and well-known key aides to bin Laden.
“Now what you find are remnants of al-Qaeda,” said Kevin Rosser, an analyst with the London-based Control Risks Group. “There’s no central nervous system anymore. Al-Qaeda is the kind of brand name that we’re giving to Islamic extremists of all kind, whether or not they’ve got real connection to bin Laden or any of his associates.”
Binnie said the report’s conclusion is “largely a recognition that al-Qaeda is actually more of a movement than a specific organisation.”
“There’s a lot of cross pollination in terms of ideas and especially tactics,” he added. “You don’t have to formally talk to Osama bin Laden to adopt his ideology. You can set up your own franchise without any real contact with the partner organisation.”
Several experts disagree with the report’s focus on Islamist terrorism, saying that although Islamic extremists pose the most immediate threat, attention should be paid to other groups that can also take advantage of the vulnerabilities of open societies.
“The emphasis is somewhat misplaced,” said Rosser. “The emphasis has to be on the phenomenon not on the most immediate manifestation of it.”
Rosser said that most instances of terrorists using unconventional weapons did not involve Islamist groups. The Tokyo subway attack a few years ago was blamed on a doomsday cult using a nerve agent, for example, and rogue weapons scientists are the main suspects in the anthrax letters case in the United States.
Former CIA official, Vincent Cannistraro, said “it’s a big mistake” to think of the issue in mechanistic terms, such as if the government had better intelligence or better organization the problem would go away.
“If terrorism promoted by radical Islam were to go away tomorrow, terrorism and political violence will not go away tomorrow,” said Cannistraro.
“The United States will be vulnerable if it just narrowly focuses on what the commission says is Islamic terrorism because the violence promoted by groups like this is the tool, the technique to confront the United States, and it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You have to get at the root causes of it,” he added.
What should be addressed, Cannistraro said, are America’s policies in the Middle East, including the Arab-Israeli conflict, which he called the “poison in the Middle East for the United States.” Arabs believe that Washington is biased in favor of Israel in the 56-year-old conflict.
“It’s a widespread perception in the Islamic world that the United States is a principle backer of injustice,” he said. “That’s the poison that feeds into the larger population of Muslims. It’s an easy way to recruit new terrorists.”