Shifting shape of the terror war

From Indonesia to Yemen, tactics and targets are changing in the war between Al Qaeda and the West.

Death came as suddenly and unexpectedly to Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi Sunday as it had to Dan Miller three weeks earlier on the other side of the world.

Mr. Miller, a young English lawyer, was killed by the bomb that devastated a Bali nightclub. Mr. al-Harethi, a reputed top Al Qaeda operative and a suspect in the bombing of the USS Cole, was killed by a Hellfire missile fired by a pilotless US drone at his jeep in Yemen.

Across continents and cultures, on opposite sides of a front line that nobody can define, the two men shared only their fate: to be victims in the "war on terror."

It is a war that both Al Qaeda and its allies and the United States have stepped up over the past month, trading blow and counterblow in a battle that is mutating.

The terrorists are hitting softer, civilian targets outside the US. Sunday's Yemen attack is evidence that the US is losing any moral qualms about extra-judicial executions.

The past four weeks have seen a wide assortment of terrorist attacks using a range of tactics against a variety of targets: a Yemeni radical Islamic group claimed it blew up the Limburg, a French-owned oil tanker, with a small boat loaded with explosives; a car bomber believed to be tied to Al Qaeda committed mass murder in Bali; Chechen gunmen seized a theater in Moscow and threatened to blow it up; and an assassin killed a US diplomat in Amman, Jordan.

This spate of worldwide violence "looks much more like a cold war ... that will drag on for a considerable time, with the enemy probing for weak spots," suggests Warren Bass, director of the terrorism program at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Efforts over the past year to track down terrorist cells and preempt their operations have enjoyed considerable success, analysts note. The US-led campaign in Afghanistan has deprived Al Qaeda of its prime base, and the shadowy war carried out by Western intelligence services has protected the US and Western Europe from direct attack – so far.

There have been no spectacular attacks against hard targets such as Al Qaeda's on Sept. 11, 2001 in New York and Washington. In Yemen, where Al Qaeda blew a hole in the destroyer USS Cole in October 2000, the target last month was an unarmed tanker. Where Al Qaeda suicide bombers attacked US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, last month's worst atrocity was in an Indonesian nightclub.

"Increased security at official US facilities has led terrorists and their sympathizers to seek softer targets such as residential areas, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, schools," the US State Department warned in a public announcement on Monday.

"Al Qaeda has been subjected to a beating without parallel" in Afghanistan and elsewhere, says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corporation. "It's not surprising that the revival is happening at a lower intensity than before. But then, the big one could be unfolding as we speak."

The apparent success in deterring attacks on more difficult targets carries the seeds of greater problems, says Magnus Ranstorp, who studies terrorism at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "Al Qaeda has become much more opportunistic and unpredictable," he points out. "The target range now has made it a nightmare to decide where they might hit next."

Nor has the campaign against international terrorism yet eradicated either of the two key components behind the violence, motivation and operational capability, argues Boaz Ganor, director of the Policy Institute for International Counterterrorism in Herzliya, Israel.

"After the campaign in Afghanistan, the motivation to attack the West is even greater than it was before," he says. On the operational front, "Al Qaeda is still alive and kicking, and nothing has happened yet to all the associated groups" such as Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines or Jameh Islamiya in Indonesia.

"The next atrocity is not a question of if, but of when," Mr. Ganor warns.

Nor is America the only target. "We sent some messages to America's allies to stop their involvement in its crusade," Osama bin Laden's top aide, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, said in a taped statement last month. "The fighting youth sent a message to Germany and one to France. If the doses are not enough, we are ready, with the help of God, to increase them."

He is thought to have been referring to a bomb attack on a Tunisian synagogue last April in which 11 German tourists died and a car bomb in Pakistan in May that killed 11 French engineers. While a dislocated Al Qaeda leadership may not have planned these attacks, the organization "has always operated top-down, with bin Laden as the CEO, and bottom-up as a venture-capitalist-type system that encourages other people," says Mr. Hoffman.

The European police have had some success in stopping such small-scale groups: Italian investigators last month arrested six Tunisians suspected of planning attacks on targets in France; while the French, Spanish and German police have also made dozens of arrests over the past 15 months in alleged terrorist cases.

US agents have also scored some successes, notably the capture of Ramzi Binalshibh, thought to have helped plan 9/11 – and of Al Qaeda's operations chief, Abu Zubaydah, in Pakistan.

But there is little to suggest that financial investigators have managed to shut down international terrorist funding networks, analysts say, and European authorities have complained that their US counterparts are not sharing all their intelligence.

The recent attacks, meanwhile, may offer clues about the direction of any future terrorist operations. Welcoming the bombing of the Limburg tanker, for example, a message signed by Osama bin Laden praised the attackers for striking "at the umbilical cord of the Christians," and Mr. Zawahiri's tape warned of future attacks aimed at destroying the US economy.

When President Bush addressed Congress soon after Sept. 11, he said that "our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been ... defeated." That goal, says Mr. Bass, is realistic. "But we also have to be realistic about the time it will take, and about the punishment that the United States and its allies will have to take along the way."

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