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'Phase shift' in terror's war on West

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Faye BowersStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / November 21, 2003


Al Qaeda may have a new twist in its strategy: bomb attacks designed to blow up alliances as well as buildings.

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Thursday's sobering truck explosions in Istanbul were but the latest in a series of strikes aimed at US allies in the war on terror.

This doesn't mean Washington is certain Al Qaeda is behind all the latest violence. It's possible that Iraqi insurgents sneaked across the border and carried out Thursday's Istanbul attacks.

Nor might cleaving allies away from the US be Al Qaeda's only goal. Osama bin Laden has long excoriated the leaders of Muslim nations that he deems to have wandered from the true faith.

But the recent bombs bear traces of known Al Qaeda tradecraft. There is a pattern emerging, say some experts, that indicates the terror group is determined to wage a sort of world war.

"This feels like a strategic shift to me, or a phase shift," says Jerrold Post, a former CIA official who heads the political psychology program at George Washington University.

If Al Qaeda is behind Thursday's attacks - as well as last week's twin bombings of Istanbul synagogues and the explosions that devastated a residential compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, earlier this month - it would mark an unprecedented surge in activity for the Islamist terrorists.

Many more people were killed on September 11, 2001, and in Al Qaeda attacks in Bali, but the ability to carry out the recent series of obviously related attacks is itself impressive, say analysts.

That's one reason to lend credence to Al Qaeda claims of culpability. The showiness of the attacks, so close together, is one of their trademarks.

"Many terrorist groups wish they could do this but if you look at the historical record, relatively few have the capabilities - intelligence, reconnaissance, dedication, the loyalty of their cadres," says Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terrorism at the RAND Corp.

Choice of targets

Another indication that it is in fact Al Qaeda that is on the march is the targets. Al Qaeda likes to strike in new, unsuspecting locations, against lightly defended buildings or compounds. Who would have thought that housing for foreign Arab workers would be attacked, as happened in Saudi Arabia? A British bank in Istanbul might have thought itself obscure enough to be safe.

Al Qaeda planners are also "success freaks," in a phrase used by Mr. Hoffman. The attacks themselves are meticulous. If the terrorists wanted to frighten Britain, they might have attacked in Britain itself. But the heavy security there would have lowered chances for pulling the attack off.

Turkey, on the other hand, is a geographical crossroads. It's a member of NATO. It's close to Iraq. Al Qaeda leaders would surely see a successful act of terrorism there as something that would send a number of powerful messages.

"Of course it's designed to sow doubt and discord in America's allies," says Mr. Hoffman. "They can become grievous sufferers, as Turkey has, whether by supporting US policies and cooperating in the war on terrorism or being a member of the West."