Norway bomb plot shows reach of Al Qaeda-linked groups
An Uzbek, a Uighur, and a Kurdish Iraqi were arrested Thursday in a Norway bomb plot described as linked to Al Qaeda – and to planners of foiled attacks in New York and in the UK.
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The backgrounds of the three men may be significant not simply because they are so varied, analysts say, but also because they come out of what a decade ago would have been nationalistic movements in which “Islam” had far lesser meaning.Skip to next paragraph
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Uighur militants identified with causes like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement which pushed back against Chinese rule, and not a serious expression of political Islam. Also, Uzbek and Kurdish movements were often a matter of territory more than an imposition of sharia law, which hard-core political Islam advocates. But this may be changing.
“They used to be fighting for land, but now the more influential Arab Islamic radicals have changed the ideology, so that the cause is now land and jihad,” says a US-based expert on jihad in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The line from fighting for a nationalist cause to expressing an Islamist line is not so far,” Ms. Azzam says.
Several analysts questioned how airtight were the Norwegian groups links to Al Qaeda. “I have no doubt the Norwegian police had good reason and good intel to arrest these men,” says Ali Laidi of the International Institute for Strategic Research in Paris. “But how they can link it so quickly to Al Qaeda – I’d want to know more. There have been many arrests in recent years that purport a link to Al Qaeda,” he says, but proven later not to be reliable.
Both Mr. Laidi and Ms. Azzam at Chatham House cautioned against overdramatizing an arrest of a group whose capability, numbers, competence, and religious zeal are quite unclear.
“I sometimes worry that we are making these groups larger than life,” says Ms. Azzam. “You only need a few individuals to make an arrest, and with a bit of grandiose analysis, they seem more important than they may in fact be.”
Laidi stressed that Al Qaeda has been in a kind of retrenchment, with problems of communications, and has been unable to achieve the kinds of dramatic and “exciting” headlines useful for recruiting for jihad.
The group arrested in Norway may not have been targeting Norwegian sites, and the terrorism threat levels in Norway remained low. The Police Security Services statement stated that “groups in Norway that may constitute a threat to national security are small and primarily involved in support activities to foreign countries.”
Eventual targets were likely the UK and the US; the Norwegian authorities had been working with US intelligence. Norway does have a contingent of troops in Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri has mentioned Norway as a target.
But Norway is considered a “third circle” priority target very far down the list, according to one senior European terrorism expert who requested anonymity.
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