Al Qaeda's new young guard: a shift in tactics
Even as Osama bin Laden remains at large, Al Qaeda may be anointing new, younger leaders to carry on his cause. Some experts go so far as to call this coterie terrorism's next generation.
These men may be behind a recent wave of attacks in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. Abu Musab Zarqawi, the main suspect in this week's bombings in Baghdad, is but 37 years old. Most of this generation looked to Mr. bin Laden for inspiration, not direction. Most trained in Al Qaeda's Afghanistan camps. Most are so devout they have memorized the Koran.
They are better educated than their predecessors - and, as independent operators, they may be more difficult to control.
This new generation has emerged, government officials and outside terror experts say, as a result of both the success in prosecuting the war on terror and because of Mr. bin Laden's planning for the future. Some two-thirds of the original Al Qaeda leadership has been captured or killed since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US. And there's no doubt, these sources say, that bin Laden and the remaining members of his top echelon are hiding and unable to easily communicate with their followers. But, they add, bin Laden knew this might happen.
"What you are looking at is a second or third generation, but it's a successor generation," says a senior intelligence official. "In an insurgency, which I think this is, you always have succession planning in order to survive. You always expect to lose leaders because you are fighting a more powerful opponent."
Among the new leaders, all a generation younger than bin Laden:
• The Jordanian Abu Musab Zarqawi is suspected of orchestrating this week's suicide bombing attacks in Baghdad, in which some 100 Iraqis were killed.
Mr. Zarqawi allegedly traveled to Afghanistan in the late 1980s, when he was 20 years old. He returned to Jordan in 1992, where he reportedly plotted to overthrow the monarchy. He was jailed for several years and apparently memorized the Koran while in prison - something many of these leaders have done.
• Saudi-born Abu Walid is believed to have taken the lead role in Chechnya's rebel movement, according to US and Russian intelligence sources. They think he is behind the suicide bomb attack in a Moscow subway last week that killed some 40 people. He also trained in Afghanistan, specializing in explosives.
• Saudi Abdul Aziz Al-Muqrin is the suspected mastermind of the May and November suicide bomb attacks in Saudi Arabia, in which 53 people died, including nine Americans.
Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin fits the same basic mold. He's in his 30s, and he also traveled to Afghanistan when he was 17 for training and later joined the war in Bosnia. He, too, spent time in a Saudi prison, where he learned the Koran by heart.
THE new fighters are probably not as dynamic and swashbuckling as their former counterparts, jihadists who came of age during the early 1980s fighting the Soviets alongside bin Laden in Afghanistan. These recent attacks, for example, are much less spectacular than the 9/11 strikes. The younger acolytes, though, are believed to be at least as religiously zealous, better educated, more computer savvy, and better organization builders.
"It shows Al Qaeda's enduring attraction, at least to the constituency it's directing its message toward," says Bruce Hoffman, an terror expert at the RAND Corp. in Washington. "Even despite the loss of Afghanistan, the call of jihad remains a compelling voice to this new generation of recruits populating the ranks."
Thursday, the US raised the reward for the capture or death of Mr. Zarqawi to $10 million. Earlier this week, government officials released a letter he purportedly wrote to Al Qaeda leaders that detailed the Iraq insurgency he's leading.
All these fronts - Iraq and Chechnya, particularly, but also Saudi Arabia - are part of Al Qaeda's original strategy, these officials and experts say. The attacks are not spectacular, as the 9/11 attacks were, but nonetheless are designed to wear down the resolve of the West.
Moreover, they show how Al Qaeda has evolved over the past decade, becoming much less of a command-and-control operation and more ideologically driven.
"For the first time we're seeing the crystallization of the network in Iraq," says Mr. Hoffman. "What you see in Iraq is much more disparate.... They will form alliances with whoever is adopting their cause - even secular alliances with Baathist forces - and they will split apart afterward."
The intelligence official concurs: "[bin Laden] wants to kill Americans and people who support Americans. They are putting a lot of effort into that."