Analysis: Al-Qaida's second breath

By CLAUDE SALHANI, UPI International Editor  |  Dec. 26, 2003 at 3:24 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 26 (UPI) -- The two recent failed attempts on the life on Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, the heightened terror threat-level in the United States and the scare over trans-Atlantic airline hijackings on Christmas Day are obvious indications that al-Qaida is alive and well, and clearly engaged on a second major offensive.

Following their ouster from Afghanistan by U.S. forces in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Osama bin Laden's group was forced to flee its strongholds, abandoning training camps and safe houses. But by now they have had ample time to catch their breath, regroup, reassess and plan their next steps, which now appears to be unfolding.

Al-Qaida's strategy, it would seem, is being implemented on three separate fronts. The first is to strike at targets of opportunity, such as U.S. military and forces associated with them in Iraq. The presence of thousands of U.S. troops concentrated in and around Baghdad and other Iraqi localities makes that job all the easier for them. Infiltrating Iraq through its long and porous frontiers with Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran further facilitates that task for al-Qaida jihadis.

Furthermore, recruiting cashiered former Iraqi military personnel in dire need of cash, ready and willing to carry out attacks against U.S. forces simplifies the task for al-Qaida operatives in Iraq. Identifying and conscripting people willing to kill Americans in exchange for money in post-Saddam Iraq should not be a terribly difficult task given the circumstances.

Al-Qaida's second front seems to be centered on Pakistan. There are a number of reasons why that country has become of prime importance to bin Laden and his acolytes. First, is its proximity to Afghanistan, from where many al-Qaida operatives fled during the U.S. offensive to oust them and the Taliban. Second, al-Qaida, just as their Taliban brethren, find enormous sympathy and support in Pakistan, not only among the population at large, but also within the military. In Pakistan, bin Laden is considered a national hero and thousands of mothers have named their sons after him.

The last two assassination attempts on Musharraf's life -- the seventh and eighth since he took power in 1999 -- would also indicate that al-Qaida is intent on overthrowing the Pakistani president. Musharraf is despised by many for the about-face he adopted vis-à-vis the Taliban, abandoning them and siding with the United States in the war on terror. Not least of those who dislike him are prominent officers in the ISI, Pakistan's influential intelligence service.

Overthrowing Musharraf and assuming power in Pakistan would accomplish two objectives for the jihadis. First, it would replace Afghanistan, giving them a "legitimate" base of operations -- something they lack at the moment. It would give them a tremendous power-base with almost unlimited human resources to choose from, when compared to Afghanistan. Pakistan's population is made up of 150 million, of which, by Musharraf' own account, one percent -- or 150,000 people -- share the extremist views of al-Qaida and bin Laden.

But of far greater importance is the fact that Pakistan is a nuclear power and the country falling into the hands of the jihadis would make bin Laden a nuclear power -- far more dangerous than a group of fanatic skyjackers armed with Islamist fervor, box cutters and determination.

The Islamists' third front is, of course, Saudi Arabia. This, in fact, has been and remains bin Laden's original objective. Bin Laden intends to overthrow the House of Saud, which he sees as corrupt, and in the process take over the immense richness of Saudi's oil production -- the world's first provider of black gold. The turmoil that has gripped the kingdom in 2003 -- bombings and attacks -- is only the beginning. Look for more terrorist actions meant to undermine the royal family in the year to come.

Bin Laden sees the United States -- the sole remaining super power -- as one of the few, if not the only impediment to his grandiose dreams of establishing an Islamist caliphate that would stretch from southwest Asia, to the Arabian peninsula, the former Soviet republics and beyond.

U.S. support of Musharraf and the Saudi royal family exacerbates the jihadis' hate of the United States, and in the course any harm they can cause to the United States -- at home or abroad -- they see as an added bonus in their ongoing struggle.

Should he accomplish his objectives, with a finger on a nuclear trigger and control over the world's vastest supply of oil, bin Laden would greatly change the present world order.

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