(UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL) -- The United States faces a disrupted but still lethal al Qaida in 2003, U.S. terrorist experts told United Press International. Though they did not expect a "spectacular" attack on U.S. soil as devastating as the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the fall of 2001, these experts warned that Islamic terrorism had regrouped in South East Asia.
Although CIA Director George Tenet said in recent congressional testimony that "an attempt to conduct another attack on U.S. soil is certain," a trio of former senior CIA officials doubted the chance of any "spectacular" terror attacks on U.S. soil.
They cautioned, however, that al Qaida has reconstituted and will still target U.S. interests and installations abroad. "I think you will see determined, bloody mass casualty attacks but they will be smaller in scope," said Larry Johnson, former CIA and State Department counter-terrorism official. A good example was the killing of a U.S. diplomat by al Qaida operatives in Jordan last month, he said.
An official of Lloyd's of London, Eric Watkins, said that al Qaida appears intent on causing damage to the West's economic lifelines, such as oil. He cited the October attack on the oil tanker Limburg by suicide bombers, as an example. Gal Luft, an intelligence analyst for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that there is "credible evidence" that al Qaida is planning to target ships transiting the Suez Canal and operating in the Red Sea area. He added that strategic oil transit points such as the Malucca Straits could also be targeted.
A major geographical shift has occurred over the last year: the chief theater in the war on terror has switched from Afghanistan to Southeast Asia. In Afghanistan, a U.S.-led military coalition toppled the Taliban and routed the al Qaida militants they were defending, and destroyed their main sanctuary even though most of the leadership of both groups -- including Osama bin Laden and his top strategist Ayman Zawahiri -- escaped alive.
Former CIA counter-terrorism chief Vince Cannistraro pointed out that bin Laden had paid $100 million to control the government of Taliban chief Mullah Omar.
On Oct. 12, the government of Indonesia, one of whose officials said only days before that: "There are no terrorists here," was shockingly awakened when three explosions on the paradise holiday island of Bali killed almost 190 people, most of them Australians. A shadowy al Qaida-affiliated group known as the Jamaah Islamiyah claimed credit, proving that Indonesia had developed into a major hub of Southeast Asia-based Islamic terrorism that is also lethal and active in Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines.
In the Arabian peninsula, as U.S. discontent grew over Saudi Arabia's inability to monitor funds going to Islamic charities acting as terror fronts, Yemen, its neighbor, dramatically increased its cooperation with the Bush administration, sharing intelligence and allowing a CIA remotely controlled Predator drone to kill al Qaida's Yemen chief of operations, Qaed Sinan al Harithi, and five other suspects as they sped in a car along a remote Yemen road.
The Bush administration has recently provided written legal authority that allows the CIA to hunt down and kill al Qaida terrorists on its "high value target list" without seeking government approval for each individual hunt-and-kill operation, according to U.S. government officials. These sources said that the presidential authority to kill terrorists defines operatives of al Qaida as enemy combatants and thus legitimate target for lethal force.
According to Tenet's testimony, the agency has significantly increased the number of CIA officers analyzing terrorist patterns and trends in an attempt "to follow every lead to the utmost of our capability." CIA and other federal agency support to the terrorist watchlist is being revamped, with analysts being urged to "err on the side of reporting" when sending names of suspects to the Department of State, Tenet said. Tenet also praised the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which he said will reduce the chances of an attack by boosting correlation of threat warnings and assessments about evolving terrorist strategies.
Several experts warned that more effective measures must be put in place to thwart terrorist funding. According to public statements by the Monitoring Committee of the U.N. Security Council, which implements seizing of terrorist assets and freezing their bank accounts, the members of al Qaida and bin Laden's International Islamic Front still have at their disposal about $300 million and "replenishments continue to flow into the funds."
U.S. experts told UPI that Chechnya and other former Soviet Central Asia republics are likely to prove hot spots in the coming year. Al Qaida is supporting Islamist groups there in efforts to establish Islamic states, according to Josef Bodansky, director of the Congressional Task Force on Terror and Unconventional Warfare.
According to Bodansky, the intelligence agencies of Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Iran have been directly supporting the Chechen guerillas. Moscow had earlier this year witnessed a series of bombings, but 50 Chechen militants took 810 civilians hostage in the heart of Moscow on Oct. 25 and held them for two days.
After the Chechens threatened to kill the hostages, the Soviets launched Operation "Groza" (Thunderstorm), according to State Department officials. The theatre in which the Chechens were holed up was flooded with a narcotic gas. As many as 118 of the hostages died from the effects of the gas, according to press reports in Pravda. All the hostage takers were also killed.
The Russians began a round up of Chechens in Moscow and Russian Interior Minister Boris Cryzlov was quoted in Pravda as suggesting the Chechens had maintained their ties to "certain diplomatic missions" in Moscow.
Bin Laden remerged into the public eye on Nov. 12 via an audiotape aired by the Arab TV station al-Jazeera. CIA and National Security Agency experts proclaimed the tape authentic and unedited after thorough analysis. Former Indian counterintelligence expert B. Raman told UPI that bin Laden had been wounded in the chest by shrapnel during the battle of Tora Bora. He escaped into Pakistan and was concealed in a religious school in Lahore, attended by "serving and retired Pakistani army doctors." A former deputy director of the CIA told UPI that this account was "credible."
Some U.S. intelligence officials such as Cannistraro had consistently maintained that bin Laden was alive and are not happy to have been proven right.