Al Qaeda broken, but dangerous
Recent attacks and thwarted plots show how the network has adapted and that risk to the US is still high.
WASHINGTON — Al Qaeda trainees are no longer in Afghanistan learning by the thousands to build bombs or hijack planes. Osama bin Laden, if alive, is incommunicado, hampered from plotting new attacks. His operations czar, Abu Zubaydah, is in US custody, and talking. His military chief, Mohammed Atef, is presumed dead.
In short, Al Qaeda Central is no more. Its home turf is gone. Its command structure is broken. Its brazen freedom to recruit, communicate, and plan and to raise funds has been sharply curtailed.
There's just one problem: Al Qaeda is reinventing itself. Just as a frail mother spider sends hundreds of young creeping to the far reaches of her web, Al Qaeda's core mission to wage jihad on Americans and their allies lives on through its cells and links to radical Islamic groups already dispersed around the globe.
From Morocco to Pakistan, a string of recent terrorist actions whether actual attacks or thwarted plots demonstrate the resilience of the broader Al Qaeda network and groups sympathetic to its cause. Indeed, in an audiotape aired yesterday by the Al-Jazeera satellite TV network, bin Laden's spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, claimed that bin Laden and his No. 2 man, Ayman Al-Zawahri, are both alive and well and their network is ready to attack new US targets.
"Some affiliated or like-minded group still has the capacity to carry out attacks and inflict pain on the US under Al Qaeda's banner," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and director of the Rand Corporation's Washington office.
New revelations about the network the depth of its ranks and its ties to "franchise" terrorists in up to 70 countries shows that "the intent [of international jihad] has not gone away," one US official says. To a terrorist, such an intent may be further fueled by the spectacular nature of the Sept. 11 attacks and a desire for revenge for the Afghanistan campaign.
As a result, Americans must gird themselves for a war against an ever-changing enemy. "This is a campaign that in some ways will never be over," says Michelle Flournoy, a terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. "This is about risk management, about reducing the likelihood and severity of attacks to a level we can live with."
In a positive sign, recent attacks have been mainly small-scale, poorly planned bombings, suggesting the perpetrators lack the skill and backing of the Sept. 11 hijackers. For example, a car bombing that killed 11 Pakistanis outside the US Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan last week represented a "quick, non-rehearsed, unsophisticated attack," says a US official. "With a little planning, it could have been a lot more effective."
Other plots appear to be the work of "freelance" terrorists linked to Al Qaeda, such as alleged shoe-bomber Richard Reid, who was arrested when he tried to blow up a Paris to Miami flight in December.
Nevertheless, experts warn that several highly experienced operatives capable of orchestrating mass casualty attacks remain at large and may be stepping into Al Qaeda's leadership void. These include men wanted for playing key roles in the bombings of US embassies in East Africa in 1998, such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, a Kuwaiti indicted as a financier of the bombings, as well as Egyptians Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah and Muhsin Musa Matwall Atwah.
Moreover, the lack so far of a large-scale strike is no cause for complacency, experts say, because under bin Laden such attacks were often years in the making, with the preparation for Sept. 11 lasting three years. Typically, a series of plots were pursued on different tracks at the same time.
"If you're throwing darts at the board, eventually something is going to get through," says a US intelligence official. "They're very patient."
Yet if Al Qaeda is proving flexible and adaptive, the US-led anti-terrorism coalition is adjusting, too.
The multifaceted international crackdown on terrorism since Sept. 11 has given US and coalition officials their best understanding yet of Al Qaeda's diffuse, parasitic nature. The unprecedented combination of military, intelligence, law-enforcement, and financial actions has put intense pressure on Al Qaeda and its cells and affiliates.
Militarily, since October the US-led campaign to destroy Al Qaeda's stronghold in Afghanistan has involved 17 nations deploying a total of 16,500 troops to Central Command's area of responsibility, including South Asia and the Middle East. Coalition nations offered the US basing and overflight rights, help in hunting down Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and neighboring regions, and assistance in manning an Arabian Sea naval blockade.
The Afghanistan campaign killed hundreds of Al Qaeda members, while hundreds more were detained. Unknown numbers fled, some to Iran, and the majority presumably to the lawless border areas of Pakistan, according to Pentagon officials. "The activity in Afghanistan clearly instigated a dispersion of these people, which I think is much better than having them training and managing terrorist acts," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last week.
While demolishing Al Qaeda's infrastructure and training camps in Afghanistan, the military campaign unearthed a trove of intelligence in the form of videotapes, documents, computer drives, phone directories, and terrorist manuals. Moreover, the 536 detainees now in US military custody in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba come from more than 40 nations a demonstration of Al Qaeda's reach but also a boon for US interrogators seeking leads to foil plots around the world.
Indeed, the intelligence on Al Qaeda gleaned from Afghanistan has fed into a robust new flow of information-sharing and law-enforcement cooperation between countries around the world both traditional US allies and nations such as Yemen and Syria with serious terrorism problems. Watching borders and conducting manhunts, the coalition has arrested more than 1,300extremists believed to be associated with Al Qaeda operatives in more than 70 countries.
The arrests have foiled some of the most serious known post- 9/11 terrorist plots.
For example, Moroccan police in Casablanca this month announced the arrest of three Saudis, members of an Al Qaeda cell plotting to attack NATO ships in the Strait of Gibraltar. The tip for the arrests came from US interrogators who were questioning Moroccan detainees held in Guantanamo Bay, Pentagon officials say.
In another case, in May US agents arrested Jose Padilla a former Chicago gang member with links to detained Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah who was allegedly helping prepare a radioactive "dirty bomb" strike in the United States.
Moreover, a string of plots to attack US embassies and military installations from Singapore to Sarajevo have been prevented since late last year.
In February, for instance, Italian police arrested four Moroccans with nine pounds of cyanide and maps locating the water pipes running to the US Embassy in Rome.
The thwarted attacks suggest that remote Al Qaeda cells are hampered in their communications, logistics, and financing. The United States and 161 other nations have ordered the freezing of assets of terrorist organizations, with more than $100 million blocked so far.
Nevertheless, Al Qaeda has held onto significant assets by converting them to hard-to-track commodities such as gold and diamonds, as well as nonregulated banking systems, US experts and officials say.
"They can't talk as easily ... they have to reinvent a new logistics system you are talking about building a business from scratch," says a US official. Stalked all over the world, the disparate Al Qaeda groups and their allies must also spend far more time on operational security.
A goal of the international counterterrorism effort is to learn enough about the capabilities and methods of terrorists to shift from a reactive "case-file" approach essentially hunting down terrorists after they strike to a proactive approach that uses key indicators to predict attacks before they happen. It's not an easy job.
"Terrorism is the archetypal shark in the water it has to move forward to succeed," says Mr. Hoffman. "So it's a constant struggle. One can never relax one's vigilance."