A new generation of jihad seekers
Terrorism experts say young radicals working in Al Qaeda's shadow are an emerging threat.
NEW YORK — While British investigators have revealed a trans-Atlantic plot to blow up as many as 12 US-bound planes, their case against British and Pakistani suspects also reveals that the West's war on terror is attracting more and more young Muslims to militant circles, say terrorism experts.
The US-led Iraq war and American support for Israel's bombardment of Lebanon are serving to fertilize anger in segments of the Muslim world. And, they say, this means that Al Qaeda may no longer be the primary enemy, but that disparate groups of young radicals who are imitating their tactics are emerging as equally potent threats.
"We haven't lost, but we're losing [the war on terror]," says Marc Sageman, the author of "Understanding Terror Networks" and a former CIA case officer who served as a liaison to the Afghan mujahideen in the late 1980s.
"The old Al Qaeda is basically neutralized. Now the danger comes from self- generated groups, they stay at home and they don't need to contact Al Qaeda – they know what Al Qaeda thinks. So in a way it's more ubiquitous and the theater of operations is now the whole world."
Mr. Sageman and other analysts say that while details on the alleged London plot are still scant, they would be surprised if it formally involved Al Qaeda in the manner that 9/11 did.
Instead, they say, satellite TV and the Internet have spread Al Qaeda's message across the globe, allowing admirers and imitators of the group to set up operations on their own.
For instance, young Arab and sometimes European Muslims have streamed into Iraq, seeking the perceived glory of becoming suicide bombers without being under command. The July 7, 2005, train attacks in London were carried by mostly British Muslims with no demonstrated ties to Al Qaeda.
"There is a new generation whom I would call jihad seekers, youngsters who are not waiting for Al Qaeda to recruit them, they are looking for jihad on their own," says Reuven Paz, the former head of research for Israel's Shin Bet security service and now director of the Project for the Research of Islamist Movements, an academic think tank.
Evidence available so far "leads to a conclusion that the initiative was theirs," says Mr. Paz. "One or two have might have gone to Pakistan and maintained links to Al Qaeda operatives, or operatives affiliated with the global jihad...but it looks again that we are talking of people who are looking to join jihad and who were not recruited. This, in my view, is a more severe phenomenon because it means there are more social, political, and economic sectors even that might contribute to this movement."
Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism consultant and author of "Al Qaeda's Jihad in Europe," disagrees on the question of Al Qaeda involvement, but also says that based on his monitoring of jihadi chat rooms and other research, the thirst for martyrdom among some Muslims has grown, not retreated, since 9/11.
"I'd be very surprised if senior leaders of [Al Qaeda] weren't involved, there's lots of talk on how amorphous these organizations are and that's true, but things like this – an effort to rival 9/11 – I find it hard to believe if no one senior at [Al Qaeda] wasn't informed," he says.
On Wednesday, the AP quoted an unnamed Pakistani intelligence officer as saying the planned attack was "probably" approved by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's No. 2, who is believed to be in hiding near the Afghan-Pakistan border.
The link, if in fact it exists, would have been made through Rashid Rauf, a Briton of Pakistani decent who moved to Pakistan after the 2002 murder of his uncle in England. He was arrested in Pakistan two weeks ago and officials there have identified him as a key mover in the alleged plot.
The US government insists that major gains have been made against global terrorism in recent years, but also agrees that the day when civilians aren't menaced by terror tactics is far off. Earlier this week, Bush said the country's war on terrorism will last "for years to come."
The open-ended nature of this war, and feelings of public vulnerability generated by reports of plans like the one emanating from London, are creating great skepticism among US allies about the effectiveness of its tactics.
The populations of America's Arab allies, like Egypt and Jordan, are largely against US foreign policy and more inclined to blame America for the violence in the region than the terrorists who carry out attacks.
Michael Radu, who helps lead the counterterrorism center at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, agrees with the assessments above that the radicalization of Muslim communities has continued apace, but strongly disagrees with assertions that US policies have contributed to the problem.
Indeed, terror tactics has been used by Islamist groups for decades, over a host of grievances.
"These persistent images in the media, both by satellite TV in the Muslim world and among Muslims more generally portraying Muslim kids being killed all over the place plays a role, obviously," he says. "But we have to understand that the re-Islamicization of European Muslims started to happen a long time ago. Before 2001 we had British citizens conducting attacks in Kashmir, we had British citizens blowing themselves up in Israel. These things had nothing to do with Iraq or current events in Lebanon."
He largely blames a culture of denial among British and other Muslim communities themselves, and what he sees as a tendency of community leaders to ascribe blame for potential plots in the wrong places.
"The so-called Muslim leaders in Britain ... they paid for a [recent] ad that said the so-called root cause of this is the foreign policy of Britain," he says.
"They said the problem is Lebanon, it's Iraq, it's Afghanistan, in other words any action by the British government to counter Islamic terrorism ... is considered to be illegitimate and therefore an explanation, if not an excuse, for terrorism," he says.