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The Continuing Al-Qaida Threat

In its fight against the international Qaidat al-Jihad network, the United States and its allies have scored some significant successes. At least five top al-Qaida operatives have been apprehended since March 2001, and may provide information useful to authorities in heading off future attacks. Overall, the news on terrorism has been good. Terrorist attacks worldwide dropped by 30 percent from 2001 to 2002, according to a new State Department report.
While counter-terrorism officials in various countries insist that the al-Qaida network is seriously weakened, it must be realized that al-Qaida remains a serious threat. Al-Qaida has learned well over the years to evolve and adapt as the U.S. and its allies cut off its bases of support. The network currently has sleeper cells and agents spread around the world, and has relocated it bases outside of Afghanistan. Moreover, the possibility that terrorists will use chemical, biological or radiological weapons, together with suicide attacks, elevates the threat from the tactical to the strategic level.

After the elimination of most of its bases in Afghanistan, al-Qaida has activated other camps in other countries. According to Western intelligence sources, some of these bases are in the former Soviet republic of Georgia and in the region of Chechnya. Nor have recent arrests—such as the capture in Pakistan of Walid Mohammed Bin Attash, one of the most wanted al-Qaida fugitives—been of as effective in removing the network’s leadership as some had hoped. New individuals or previously dormant individuals have already stepped in to fill the void. The fact that al-Qaida’s operational capabilities are scattered around the world in loosely affiliated cells makes it difficult to predict where the next attack will occur and to thwart it in time.

Exploitation of the Iraq war

At the same time, there are some “hot-spots” that should be carefully monitored for signs of al-Qaida activity. For example, as the U.S. prepared for war in Iraq, al-Qaida declared an international Jihad against the coalition forces. Arab Afghan Alumni volunteers were urged to carry out suicide attacks and to instruct radical Iraqi Islamic groups in guerrilla warfare and urban combat based on the Afghan experience. Al-Qaida presumably is watching and waiting for the right time and opportunity to strike—either in Iraq or elsewhere around the globe. Such attacks could be carried out either by means of local proxies or by al-Qaida militants in a particular country.

Some intelligence sources believe that al-Qaida has been quiet by choice, not because its plans have been disrupted. There is evidence that al-Qaida’s remaining leadership believes the war in Iraq will produce a new stream of recruits disenchanted with American actions, perhaps allowing al-Qaida to create a new front of international Jihad in Iraq. According to Islamic web sites the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime may have a catalytic effect on the mobilization of recruits for al-Qaida or local radical Islamic organizations in the Arab world and in some of the Muslim countries. Radical Islamic leaders expect an outbreak of fundamentalist zeal to counter the “Infidel Crusaders.”

“Moderate” elements increasingly supportive of Jihad

On March 10th 2003, a declaration appeared on an Islamic Arab Internet forum affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, announcing of the establishment of the “Hamas movement in Kuwait,” to fight the American forces in the region. This declaration should be taken seriously, as it reflects the atmosphere in many circles in the Arab world. Jihad is increasingly endorsed by religious authorities as an obligatory religious command. This endorsement forms the ideological and operational basis for recruiting highly motivated people to take part in the “Holy War”. Even the Islamic establishments that might previously been considered “moderate,” such as Al-Azhar in Cairo, and the scholars affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, are now fanning the flames of hatred against the United States and the Western culture that it represents. The rising rage fueled by Islamic decrees “Fatwa” issued by Islamic elements.

In the Palestinian arena, verbal attacks on the United States by Hamas leaders have become a staple part of the movement’s message in recent years. Sheik Yasin, Abd al Rantisi, Mahmoud al-Zahhar, Ismaeel Abu Shanab, or Ibrahim Maqadmeh (killed by Israel in February 2003) have all come out in support of attacks on the United States, although they stopped short of urging their own followers to carry out such attacks. The rhetoric reached new pitches of hostility in the wake of the American measures against Hamas fund-raising and money-laundering facilities.

Worrying signs

At present, there are worrying signs of increased radical Islamic preparations—with the blessing and endorsement of Islamic clerics—for terror attacks in Iraq and the Gulf states. U.S. officials have warned Americans against traveling to Saudi Arabia, after receiving credible information about plans to attack on U.S. interests there.

In Pakistan, the arrest of a key al-Qaida member and five lower-level operatives reportedly broke up a plot to fly an airplane into the U.S. Consulate in Karachi. This is an example of the high motivation and operational capabilities that still imposes threats.

Intelligence officials point out that al-Qaida’s more spectacular attacks, such as the 9/11 attacks and the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa, are generally spaced at roughly two-year intervals. Some of these attacks were in the planning stages for more than four years. The March 2003 arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed raised concern that he could have had a number of attacks planned, and that cells may have been waiting for a signal to go into action in any one of a number of countries.

Al-Qaida has demonstrated it has a deep roots, and as long bin Laden’s operational infrastructure and his key associates remain in hiding, al-Qaida leaders will exploit regional conflicts in the world where they can count on a large number of supporters and local contacts. Al-Qaida’s most significant contacts are with groups in Pakistan, Southeast Asia, East Africa, the Gulf states, central Asia and the radical Islamic Palestinian groups. In most of these areas, hostility toward U.S. actions and policies is already quite high, creating fertile ground for al-Qaida recruiting.

According to a recent evaluation by members of the U.S. administration, the global campaign launched by President Bush has destroyed Osama bin Laden’s Afghan sanctuary, drained his financial resources, scattered his foot soldiers and led to the killing or capture of several of his most dangerous lieutenants.

However, it is must be emphasized that al Qaida is still capable of carrying out virtually any type of terrorist attack that it was able to execute in the past. The threat posed by bin Laden’s network, which is believed to number perhaps three dozen men at its vital core, continues in important ways to outpace the American response. Although it is now scattered, the al Qaida network still remains capable of exercising global command and control.