The year 2004 may be new but it may not prove pleasant as America faces an unprecedented number of challenges.
"Terrorism is proliferating like a cancer," said former CIA chief of counterterrorism, Vince Cannistraro.
"Iraq is the land of jihad," Rohan Gunaratna, associate professor at the Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies at Nanyang and an internationally recognized authority on al-Qaida, said in a recent speech in Washington.
Former CIA officials such as Larry Johnson, Milt Bearden, Vince Cannistraro, and former CIA Iraq analyst Judith Yaphe all agree that the U.S. invasion of Iraq turned into a focus for jihad where before contact between al-Qaida and Iraq had been minimal and uncoordinated.
Gunaratna, in the same speech, said that the U.S. intervention had "facilitated the growth of existing and the emergence of new Islamic parties, who share al-Qaida's goals."
He stressed, "with the steadfast growth of Muslim public anger and rage against the U.S and its friends, Islamist groups are now able to exercise even greater influence among the Muslim communities."
Former CIA official Whitley Bruner agreed. "Al Qaida seems to work within the support systems supplied by Muslim countries," he said.
Several administration officials interviewed by United Press International said they saw this as the reason for the recent Turkish attacks. One administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the attacks indicated a "new subtle strategy" on the part of al-Qaida's targeting. "What this attack was intended to do was disrupt Turkey's efforts to integrate itself with Western Europe," he said.
He explained that Turkey - NATO's only Muslim member --has long wanted to become part of the Western European Union, and an attack on the British-based HSBC bank, the second largest in the world, "is designed to impart the impression that Turkey is still a third-world, insecure country. It is a hint for the British to exercise caution in admitting Turkey as a full economic partner in Europe."
Another goal of the attack was to cripple Turkey's tourism industry, a State Dept. official said.
"Turkey needs its revenues from tourism for foreign debt repayments," he added.
Veteran counterterrorism analyst, B. Raman, former member of the joint U.S.-India counterterrorism committee, agreed. He said publicly that the attacks "aim to segregate the Muslim world from the rest of the world...in economic terms."
Former CIA man Johnson said, "It's clear that al-Qaida has begun to target moderate Muslim countries, to drive a wedge between them and the West. But how strong is al-Qaida?"
A former CIA chief of operations in Afghanistan said: "I get a bit sick of every act of terror being attributed to al-Qaida. They are not that large, their command and control is downgraded, and we've arrested a lot of top leaders with operational experience."
Then what about al-Qaida today?
Guaranty told United Press International that membership in al-Qaida just after the Sept. 11 attacks was around 4,000. Since then there have been 4,100 arrests of the group's members and sympathizers in 102 countries.
Gunaratna said that most of al-Qaida's attacks after 9/11 have occurred in the "Global South" because its ability to attack the United States mainland has been degraded by "unprecedented security and intelligence cooperation among
Because of its defeat in Afghanistan and its being on the run, the time for al-Qaida to carefully train and prepare recruits has gone or been diminished," he said.
Gunaratna said that al-Qaida infiltrates and operates with groups that are active in the West such as the Algerian GIA.
U.S. intelligence officials also said that the group is establishing new bases in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, in Mindanao in the Philippines, Indian Kashmir, the Pankishi Valley in Georgia and Chechnya to compensate for the loss of Afghanistan.
In any case, there are now 30 Islamic groups that are launching attacks with minimal guidance or support from al-Qaida, although it mobilizes support and provides operational and ideological guidance, he said.
But according to a number of serving and former U.S. terrorism experts the sinister point is that the new al-Qaida-affiliated groups can deliver attacks that cause much carnage and are just a ferociously lethal as al-Qaida itself. The May suicide bombings in Casablanca, Morocco - the worst in its history -- that killeding 28, damaging a Spanish restaurant, a Jewish community center and cemetery, a hotel and the Belgian consulate.
So as the New Year dawns, al-Qaida will continue its tactical alliance with Iraq nationalists and former Baath officials to attack U.S.-led forces and try to destroy reconstruction effort by killing cooperating Iraqis and launching attacks on "soft targets" such as contractors or non-governmental organizations.
The second phase will target Muslim countries that are allied with the United States and major nations of the United States and the West.
A third point is even more sobering. Bin Laden, a Saudi exile, as opened a new, all-out campaign by the terrorist group to topple the House of Saud, administration officials said.
"We are seeing the situation there become truly ominous," a U.S. government official said of the escalating violence.
U.S. analysts said that they fear that Saudi exile bin Laden believes that al-Qaida can bring America to its knees because toppling the current ruling Saudi government would bring the most dire economic consequences. "It would mean the loss of the swing producer of OPEC, the loss of the key swing vote in OPEC, the loss of all that 60 percent of the world's oil supplies," causing Western economic collapse, said one U.S. official.
Nor should there be any complacency because there have been no spectacular attacks on American itself, several experts said. According to Yossef Bodansky, author of "Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America," the Saudi-born terrorist has been seeking radiological or chemical or biological weapons for years.
Gunaratna agreed with this, noting that the discovery of three-dozen terrorist manuals from the Afghanistan and other theaters "with formulae to manufacture chemical and radiological agents and radiological dispersal devices are and should be a deep cause of concern.