Analysis: How threatening is al-Qaida now?

By SHAUN WATERMAN  |  April 22, 2003 at 4:46 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 22 (UPI) -- News that U.S. intelligence and its allies disrupted a number of terrorist threats -- including from al-Qaida against U.S. troops in the Gulf -- during the war against Iraq, highlights questions about the nature of the continuing threat posed by the network to the United States.

United Press International reported Tuesday that, in the words of one government official, "Al-Qaida plots against U.S. troops in the gulf were disrupted during the war."

With no independent confirmation and with officials unwilling to speak for the record or -- citing security concerns -- provide any details, it is impossible to judge how serious the threats were: how near to completion plots were; how significant the targets; or the scale or exact location of any planned attacks.

But the failure of al-Qaida to successfully stage any attacks at all anywhere in the world during the war -- having issued a public call from its leader Osama bin Laden for Muslims everywhere to "brace themselves for Jihad against this unjust campaign" -- puts a question mark over whether the network still poses a continuing threat to the United States and its interests.

It is a question on which knowledgeable people disagree.

Rep. Porter J. Goss, R-Fla., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told UPI that al-Qaida has been hard hit by the arrest of top leaders and the seizure -- by U.S. and allied intelligence agencies -- of document troves he declines to talk about. But he cautions, "They still have the ability to bite, and bite hard."

He says al-Qaida has a "special patience," and that time is on its side. "They can carry out their missions at a moment of their own choosing -- whenever they feel they have the best chance of success."

Ben Venzke, a private sector intelligence analyst who has consulted for the U.S. government, agrees, pointing out that al-Qaida's "planning cycle for major attacks is one to three years ... They are very patient. They take the long view."

"It would be rather foolish to say that the reason there have been no attacks (during the war) is because we have so decimated the organization that it is no longer a threat," Venzke cautions.

Goss agrees the threat to the United States is still real. "It is a certainty that there are embedded al-Qaida and other terrorists in America who are waiting for the right moment to do something."

He says that U.S. intelligence has "done serious damage to the command and control of al Qaida" but adds that no one knows the degree of autonomy that cells here and elsewhere enjoy. He also cautions that "free-lance sympathizers ... who may not even be sympathizers yet," will continue to pose a threat for a long time to come.

Husain Haqqani, a former diplomat and adviser to three Pakistani prime ministers, echoes Goss's comments that, even with al-Qaida's leadership disrupted, there remains a threat from "free-lance sympathizers" -- what Haqqani calls "retail terrorism ... Small groups or individuals deciding to act on their own."

He says the only way to end this is an ideological struggle. "It is just as important to defeat the ideas of al-Qaida as it is to break up the organization. The network has been severely degraded and disrupted. But the ideas have not been discredited."

Making an analogy with the drug war, where smashing one cartel of importers merely makes more room for its competitors, Haqqani told UPI. "The key is to cut off the supply -- the constant stream of volunteers, of young men willing to strap bombs to their bodies and blow themselves up."

This struggle, he says, will actually be harder than the one to break up the organization. "It's not easy to root out an idea ... But we must remember that the ideology that we are seeing now manifesting itself is not an old ideology." He says the use of terrorism in the name of Islam is only three or four decades old. "The roots of this are actually very shallow ... Muslims have been around for 1,400 years ... This form is a new one."

But others are more sanguine.

Mohammad Sadiq, deputy chief of mission of the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, says that al-Qaida is "on the run."

"The targets they attacked in Pakistan (last year) were targets of desperation -- they are on the run and were desperate to make a statement of any kind."

He says the group was crippled by the smashing of its top leadership, especially the arrest of Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

By contrast, a U.S. intelligence official says that successes in the war on terror have disrupted the al-Qaida network only "a bit."

Goss says that their failure to strike at the United States during the war has probably not hurt their credibility with their base.

"Probably -- from a rational perspective -- their stock has gone down a bit. But ... we're dealing with an irrational movement. I'm not sure that it matters much to the true believers ... The spirit is there, the radicalism is there, the energy is there."

Sadiq maintains that the whole phenomenon of global terrorism is "under control." Any would-be inheritors or successors, he says, will face a much more hostile environment.

"It would be very difficult for any new organizations to develop. Now the world is vigilant, everyone is watching. Antennas are up now in law enforcement, intelligence agencies are on the alert, illegal money transfers are being monitored much more closely ... The chances of a new global network emerging are next to zero."

Even in the lawless regions of Afghanistan, he says, the problem is likely to remain localized. "Large tracts of the country are not under control. Things can happen in those areas, but they will be localized incidents ... That has been happening in Afghanistan for 300 years now."

But one former senior Pakistani official -- who asked not to be named -- is less sanguine than his currently serving colleague.

It's not just Afghanistan, he pointed out in a telephone interview with UPI. "There are parts of North Yemen, pockets of Indonesia, islands in the Southern Philippines, most of Chechnya, even parts of the North West Frontier Province (of Pakistan) that are completely beyond the control of their governments. It's not like these (al-Qaida) people have just vanished. ISI (Pakistan's Inter Service Intelligence) estimated there were 4,000 known, identified members. About 3,000 have been captured or killed. The rest are still out there -- and there are plenty of places for them to hide."

He believes that the network -- though undoubtedly disrupted by the U.S.-led war on terror -- will continue to adapt, and to pose a threat. "They will learn new techniques. Perhaps there will be fewer attacks, because they know that every action brings a reaction -- arrests and so forth -- fewer, but bigger. Or perhaps they will go the other way -- many more, smaller attacks. They learn every time we strike them, they learn from every arrest."

He concludes, "Personally, I think it's a little early to celebrate victory."

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