Al Qaeda's capabilities may be growing

Recent bombings hint at a deeper hazard: Terror ideology is luring new converts.

The only way to permanently defuse Al Qaeda's threat to the US may be to make the group's ideology seem less legitimate to recruits – the radically discontented of the Islamic world.

That's the consensus of a range of US experts in the wake of an apparent wave of attacks by a renewed Al Qaeda. These attacks, from Bali to Yemen, prove that the organization remains cunning and resilient, despite blows inflicted by the US military.

Continued intelligence gathering and law enforcement will be crucial in the months ahead. But true victory may require a broadened US effort.

"Americans must make an effort to understand the terrorist mind-set," says Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, an expert on Al Qaeda at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "They must develop a multidimensional approach to counter the ideology."

Al Qaeda's actions have reminded the US – and the group's followers – that it remains a global threat. The tally of recent attacks – bombings in Bali and the Philippines, an attack on a French tanker in Yemen, the shooting of US marines in Kuwait, several attacks in Pakistan, and the bombing of a synagogue in Tunisia last spring – demonstrates that the group's adherents intend to keep coming at their declared adversaries.

Because of increased activity, US intelligence chiefs predict more – and possibly more catastrophic – attacks on America.

"The threat environment we find ourselves in today is as bad as it was ... the summer before 9/11," CIA Director George Tenet told a joint Congressional committee looking into pre-9/11 intelligence lapses last week. "[Al Qaeda] is serious. They have reconstituted.... They intend to attack this homeland again."

One thing intelligence officials have learned since Osama bin Laden rose to the top of their concerns is that Al Qaeda's actions are designed to carry out attacks that the group leaders say are motivated by Islamic tenets.

Successful attacks make the group more attractive to discontented Muslims, who see Al Qaeda as redressing what they perceive as insults to their faith. The ousting of the group from Afghan bases does not appear to have ended its ability to recruit.

"For every two to four Al Qaeda members killed in a week, they are recruiting five to six more," says Dr. Gunaratna. Because Al Qaeda has proved such a cunning adversary, say experts, it is crucial to develop an offensive strategy to go after its members.

Another senior intelligence official agrees. "We haven't got it," he says. "If Osama bin Laden was just a terrorist and Al Qaeda just terrorists, we would have destroyed them long ago."

This intelligence official, the anonymous author of a recent book on Mr. bin Laden, "Through Our Enemies' Eyes," along with Gunaratna and others, says the only way to permanently defuse Al Qaeda is to get at its ideology.

He has studied bin Laden's public statements, and he says that no US adversary has more clearly telegraphed his intentions. And, he says, those intentions – especially those focused on America – have escalated.

He says that bin Laden began providing statements in the early 1990s. His aims, the intelligence official says, are to get the US to end its support for Israel, withdraw US troops from Saudi Arabia, and end sanctions on Iraq.

"[Bin Laden] has said he will incrementally increase the cost in blood and treasure until the US rethinks its policies," the official says. "Nothing has happened since 1996 that he didn't say would happen. And I have no doubt he will strike again." He describes a clear incrementalism in the attacks, in terms of both their sophistication and damage.

• December 1992: Al Qaeda waged a small attack on US soldiers passing through Yemen on their way to Somalia.

• October 1993: Either Al Qaeda fighters or Somali fighters trained by Al Qaeda shot down two US helicopters and killed 18 American soldiers. The US pulled out of Somalia.

• November 1995: Al Qaeda attacked a Saudi Arabian building, killing five Americans.

• June 1996: Al Qaeda attacked the Khobar towers in Riyadh, killing 19 Americans and wounding some 500 others.

• August 1998: Al Qaeda attacked US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Twelve Americans died and 7 were wounded; 291 Africans died and 5,100 were wounded.

• October 2000: Al Qaeda bombed the USS Cole, killing 17 soldiers and wounding 39.

• Sept. 11, 2001: Al Qaeda struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"Until we come to grips with his ideology," the official says, "the attacks will continue."

Gunaratna agrees: "As long as people believe they are waging a jihad for God, many people will support it and join it."

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