Al Qaeda's reach grows, with help from Web
Suspects were named Wednesday in blast that killed 25 in Turkey. Experts see Islamists joining terror group.
WASHINGTON AND ISTANBUL — Emboldened and perhaps even inspired by the insurgency in Iraq, extremists linked to Al Qaeda are broadening their war against the West and taking an even more ruthless course in doing so.
This past weekend's attacks on Jewish synagogues in Turkey, which government officials now link to Turkish militants trained by Al Qaeda, underscore the point. The secular Muslim country that exists at the crossroads of East and West has had its share of home-grown terror attacks in the past two decades. But it hasn't been hit this hard, with the expertise required to pull off two suicide bombing attacks simultaneously - an Al Qaeda hallmark.
These strikes, along with those earlier this month in Saudi Arabia, point up three dramatic developments, experts and officials say:
• Al Qaeda's reach is wide, in part because of members trained together in terrorist camps.
• Al Qaeda is still relevant, able to pull off attacks either by direct orders or proxy, despite setbacks to its leadership and rank and file.
• The group's trained acolytes - estimated to number about 100,000 - are now willing to kill Muslims, women, children, any part of a population or country they see as either in the way or as subservient to the US.
The attacks "show that Al Qaeda has no compunction about operations that kill Muslims, even women and children and during [the Muslim holy month of] Ramadan," says Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terror at the RAND Corp in Washington. "They see this as a war, and they argue that innocent people tragically die in wars."
But these attacks also provide the West with an opportunity to foster a budding backlash within the Muslim world. If the US and its allies can use a public-information campaign to capitalize on the ruthlessness of Al Qaeda's willingness to kill Muslim brethren - much as Al Qaeda leaders appeal to constituents - a groundswell of ill will toward the group could arise.
"We can't expect it to come up organically, because the terrorists in their propaganda are presenting their side of the story," Mr. Hoffman says. "And with the general enmity felt in many places toward the US, more people may be drawn to Al Qaeda. We have to work actively toward getting them in the fight against terrorism."
Meanwhile, the hunt for those who carried out the recent attacks moved forward Wednesday, as authorities in Istanbul cited DNA evidence implicating two men from southeast Turkey in the bombings that killed 25 people and injured over 300.
Experts on Turkish Islamic movements say that groups affiliated with Al Qaeda have been operating in Turkey for several years. In the mind of Al Qaeda, Turkey is the model of everything a Muslim nation should not be: an officially secular state, and one with ties to the US and Israel.
Initial reports suggest that the two bombers received training in Iran and Pakistan and then fought in Afghanistan - a Pakistani passport was reportedly found at the scene of one of the bombings.
Rusen Cakir, a journalist who covers Muslim fundamentalist groups, says that at least several hundred Turks fought in Afghanistan, possibly far more.
"All of these people who fought before are related directly to Al Qaeda," he says. Others are members of Islamic groups who act independently, but may have "wedded" themselves to Al Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.
"The Islamist movement here is trying to rejuvenate themselves through new terrorist acts, and at the moment they can get help from Al Qaeda," says Prof. Nilufer Narli, a political sociologist at Kadin Has University.
"There is no evidence that directly links this to Al Qaeda, but Al Qaeda is a loose network," Professor Narli says. "It's like a spider web. The planning of the actual attack is very local, but it is clear that the concept and some assistance is international. Some of the assistance can come in the form of intelligence as well."
From Turkey to Iraq and beyond, there are signs that Al Qaeda has become extremely proficient at getting its message out - through television, newspapers, and the Internet, officials say.
Websites continue to crop up more quickly than the CIA can shut them down. The sites are used as vehicles for recruitment - often showing videos of what Al Qaeda members say depict US abuse of Muslims in Iraq, among other places, at the behest of Israel.
On websites this past weekend, for example, two different militant groups claimed responsibility for the attacks in Turkey and warned of other attacks in the works against the US and its allies. Moreover, an Arab language newspaper based in London published a statement purported to be from the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigrades, affiliated with Al Qaeda. The group claimed responsibility for the attacks in Turkey and went on to threaten the US and its allies.
Indeed, what bin Laden is doing quite well in the Muslim world, officials and experts say, is constantly casting the US as exploiting and repressing Muslims.
Take the situation in Iraq. "Look at it from bin Laden's point of view," says Robert Baer, a former CIA undercover operative who spent many years in the region. Bin Laden's assumption was that the US used Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction as an excuse to invade Iraq. Now that none have been found, he is exploiting that and the fact that US officials now say Hussein was evil and he had to be removed. "They're using that argument to say the US wants to occupy the Middle East on behalf of Israel."
Baer adds that the current operation in Iraq - Iron Hammer - only further strengthens bin Laden's position.
"Now that the US is using F-15s to again bomb civilian neighborhoods, [bin Laden and his associates] immediately point to what [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon is doing to the Palestinians and says there's no difference between that and what is happening in Iraq."
A senior intelligence official agrees. "Iraq is an unexpected gift for Al Qaeda," he says. "I think you have the world series of jihad going on now in Iraq."
This is one reason Germany appointed a commissioner for dialogue with Islamic countries. "We need a serious dialogue to close the credibility gap if we want to win the battle for hearts and minds in future generations," says Gunter Mulack, Germany's ambassador to the Islamic world. "Iraq has become an example of occupation and not liberty to [many] Muslims."