Al Qaeda: shift to smaller, 'softer' targets?
Latest attacks suggest the terrorist group, though dispersed, is waging local strikes.
WASHINGTON — Al Qaeda is far from gone, terrorism experts warn. The new attacks being waged from the bombings in Bali and on the French tanker in Yemen to the shootings of marines in Kuwait show the terror network is reconstituting itself, entering a new phase in which attacks are smaller in scale and aimed at "softer" targets.
The group's leaders and its hard-core members somewhere between 250 to 300 have been killed, captured, or pushed from Afghanistan. But the thousands of foot soldiers who went through Al Qaeda training camps are disbursed throughout the world waiting for signals to strike.
Those signals were sent, some experts and US officials say, through recent messages by Al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri that were broadcast by Al Jazeera TV throughout the Muslim world.
The new attacks underscore that these foot soldiers and their loosely affiliated terror groups have been able to coalesce in other countries and put together the manpower and materiel to wage more attacks.
That makes it all the more crucial, experts say, for the US not only to break up the group's leadership, but to continue to pull in Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern countries in political partnerships to combat the terror group.
"As long as the leadership is alive, they can give strategic and tactical directions," says Rohan Gunaratna, an expert on terrorism at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "The US has been largely fighting this war militarily. It needs to develop a multidimensional approach, pulling in more Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern countries."
Those are the countries where thousands of young men who passed through Al Qaeda training camps have gone. Al Qaeda began decentralizing, Dr. Gunarata says, soon after the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Africa, when Pakistan pressed by the US began arresting members passing through.
But that diaspora greatly accelerated last October, after the US military campaign so successfully ended the rule of the Taliban regime that harbored Al Qaeda.
Today, there are basically three sets of Al Qaeda operatives. There is the greatly disrupted leadership on the run, but still apparently able to orchestrate attacks.
Then there are regional leaders who were sent out in the late 1990s by Al Qaeda. They head up regional groups like Jemaah Islamiyah, the radical Islamist group in Indonesia suspected of setting off the bomb in Bali.
Below that are thousands of foot soldiers from many nations Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and more. "These groups are sympathetic with Al Qaeda, but carry out operations on their own; they're freelancers," says Jim Walsh, an international security expert at Harvard University. "To put a perverse twist on it, you have groups thinking globally but acting locally."
The US has so far been quite successful in forging global intelligence-sharing relationships. US officials say they're cooperating with more than 100 countries to ferret out Al Qaeda members. That has led to scores of arrests.
Omar Al Farouq, reportedly sent out in the late '90s as a regional leader by Al Qaeda, was captured in Indonesia in June and turned over to the US. Since September, intelligence officials say, he has been providing information on Southeast Asian groups. But despite quiet and repetitious exhortations by US officials, Indonesia has so far refused to arrest other Islamic leaders known to be hiding there.
In fact, in the week before the attack on the nightclub in Bali, US officials repeatedly warned Indonesia that Al Qaeda was planning an attack there. US Secretary of State Colin Powell added his voice to the mix Tuesday.
"So now we can see that you [Indonesia] are not exempt from this; you cannot pretend it doesn't exist in your country," Mr. Powell told reporters.
It is not yet clear how far Indonesia would go. It continues to send mixed signals, with some leaders saying they would arrest Jemaah Islamiyah members and others saying the group doesn't even exist in Indonesia.
The most populous Muslim nation in the world, Indonesia is three times the size of Texas and spread across thousands of islands. Its leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, must navigate between a powerful military and the Muslim political parties that provide her support base. "That gives the US some delicate issues to deal with," says Mr. Walsh.
Gunaratna, author of the book "Inside Al Qaeda," asserts the only effective way to get rid of the organization is to combat its ideology. "The Muslim leaders, heads of state, community leaders, and educators must be pushed and galvanized by the US to see that Al Qaeda is a heretical organization and not a Koranic organization," he says. "It is misinterpreting and misrepresenting the Koran."
He adds that for every two to four members killed, five to six people are ready to replace them. Until the US and its allies can stop that, Al Qaeda will carry out more attacks, like the one in Bali.
"This attack should not only be looked at as an attack on an idyllic place where Hindus, Muslims, and Christians get along," says John Parachini, a specialist on terrorism at the RAND Corp.
He says it is vintage Al Qaeda an attack on Western symbols. In Bali, he notes, there are bars with Western music, which can be considered an affront to Islam. Moreover, he says, bin Laden criticized Australia's participation in the peacekeeping forces that were sent to East Timor in 1999, when the Christian majority seceded from the Muslim country.
"Al Qaeda is much weaker than it was prior to 9/11, but it's not dead." Mr. Parachini says. "The important thing is to maintain patience and focus over a long time."