Scattered Al Qaeda harder to target

Recent bombings indicate the network is teaming up with local radicals, making antiterror efforts more difficult.

The portrait of Al Qaeda emerging one week after some of the worst terrorist bombings since 9/11 is of a group that is decentralizing and setting up bases of operation in new regions - to the considerable detriment of antiterror efforts.

Although President Bush has said at least half of Al Qaeda's leadership has been removed, many experts think it's the less important half and that the organization is becoming more active in exploiting local conflicts as well as plotting new attacks.

In the end, the US military's disruption of Al Qaeda's base of operations in Afghanistan has had the result of forcing remnants of the organization to fan out around the world, making it harder for US intelligence officials to track cells and foil hits.

"The US intervention in Afghanistan and Pakistan increased the speed of Al Qaeda's decentralization," says Rohan Gunaratna, an expert on terror and author of "Inside Al Qaeda." "We saw experts in intelligence and organization, financiers, military trainers from the corps in Pakistan and Afghanistan moving to ... Mindanao [in the Philippines], Kashmir, Bangladesh, Somalia, Algeria, Yemen, Chechnya, and the Pankisi Valley in Georgia."

From these centers, officials and experts say, Al Qaeda is not only able to inject itself into regional conflicts, hijacking the goals and foot soldiers of radical Islamist groups. Its adherents are also able to carry out planning, training, and recruiting efforts for additional attacks.

The diffused nature of the network and its ability to remold itself is one reason behind the growing number of warnings that are now surfacing about possible new Al Qaeda strikes.

Tuesday, the US Embassy in Saudi Arabia announced that some of its Saudi missions will be closed for the next few days because of imminent threats.

At the same time, Tom Ridge, secretary of Homeland Security, says he is considering raising the US terror threat level from elevated to high because of intelligence that the US might be the target of a new hit.

"There is a chatter, and a high level of chatter both regionally and in other international spots," Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the US, told reporters in Riyadh Monday night. He went on to say that his "gut feeling is that something big will happen either in Saudi Arabia or America."

Al Qaeda isn't El Niño

To be sure, some analysts caution against seeing Al Qaeda under every bed. In some respects, the organization has become the new El Niño - blamed for everything short of the Red Sox loss to the Yankees Monday night.

But terrorism experts note that by reconstituting itself and setting up smaller bases in new countries, the group has become more dangerous and difficult to stop.

"Al Qaeda is constantly moving forward, changing direction," says Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terror at the RAND Corp. in Washington. "You don't just want to keep up with it, you want to get one step ahead. But that's very difficult."

For now, US intelligence officials are focusing intently on Saudi Arabia and Morocco to see if they can cull information about the group's plans.

A team of some 60 members - from the FBI, CIA, and Defense Department - is in Riyadh, examining evidence the Saudis have collected from some of those arrested after the recent series of bombings, as well as houses they've raided.

The latest attacks in both Morocco and Saudi Arabia are indicative of the kinds of operations Al Qaeda is likely to carry out from here, experts say.

The dispersal of the group's midlevel leadership, in particular, has enhanced the ability of local radicals to carry out more sophisticated hits.

They cite the example of Salifiya Jihadia, one of the groups intelligence officials believe is responsible for the five near-simultaneous bombings in Casablanca, Morocco, this past weekend. It has never been able to pull off an attack like this before.

Moreover, before the October 2002 bombing of the nightclub in Bali, Indonesia, which killed 190 people, the Jemah Islamiya (JI) had never carried out an operation on that scale.

"Basically, the key coordinators are all from Al Qaeda," says Dr. Gunaratna. "These regional terrorist groups have gained momentum because these high-quality Al Qaeda members joined them. That is why it was possible for JI to stage a scale of bombing like that in Bali."

Disrupting such a scattered network won't be easy. Experts say it will involve the US committing more resources around the world and teaming up more governments.

That is why, they say, Mr. Bush is intent on helping Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the president of the Philippines. On Monday, the president pledged $95 million in military aid to the country and will send additional troops to help rout terrorists.

Few people doubt, in the end, that the US and its allies have made inroads in breaking up the ragtag Al Qaeda network. Besides depriving them of a sanctuary for planning and training in Afghanistan, several of its top-level leaders have been captured or killed.

The new Al Qaeda lieutenants

But intelligence officials and experts alike say that the key members - the most intelligent, capable, and dangerous - have evaded capture.

One of the most notorious is Saif al-Adel, whom European and US intelligence officials believe has assumed the mantle of military leadersince Abu Zubaydah's capture in Pakistan in March 2002.

Mr. Adel was a member of Egypt's Special Forces, as have been all past leaders of Al Qaeda's military wing. They also were members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), brought into Al Qaeda in 1998 by Osama bin Laden's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

"Only one of the original EIJ operatives in Al Qaeda's upper echelon [Mohammed Atef] has been killed," says the RAND Corp.'s Hoffman. "Accordingly, the movement's core competency arguably remains in tact."

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