The New Face of Al Qaeda

The following article is from The Los Angeles Times looking at the changing nature of Al Qaeda. You can see the original article at, 1,7404747.story?coll=la-home-headlines 1

The New Face of Al Qaeda: Al Qaeda Seen as Wider Threat

by Douglas Frantz, Josh Meyer, Sebastian Rotella and Megan K. Stack

The Los Angeles Times

September 26, 2004

Al Qaeda seen as wider threat. The network has evolved into a looser, ideological movement that may no longer report to Bin Laden. Critics say the White House focus is misdirected.

RABAT, Morocco - Authorities have made little progress worldwide in defeating Islamic extremists affiliated with Al Qaeda despite thwarting attacks and arresting high-profile figures, according to interviews with intelligence and law enforcement officials and outside experts.

On the contrary, officials warn that the Bush administration's upbeat assessment of its successes is overly optimistic and masks its strategic failure to understand and combat Al Qaeda's evolution.

Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, Al Qaeda was a loosely organized network, but core leaders exercised considerable control over its operations. Since the loss of its base in Afghanistan and many of those leaders, the organization has dispersed its operatives and reemerged as a lethal ideological movement.

Osama bin Laden may now serve more as an inspirational figure than a CEO, and the war in Iraq is helping focus militants' anger, according to dozens of interviews in recent weeks on several continents. European and moderate Islamic countries have become targets. And instead of undergoing lengthy training at camps in Afghanistan, recruits have been quickly indoctrinated at home and deployed on attacks.

The United States remains a target, but counter-terrorism officials and experts are alarmed by Al Qaeda's switch from spectacular attacks that require years of planning to smaller, more numerous strikes on softer targets that can be carried out swiftly with little money or outside help.

The impact of these smaller attacks can be enormous. Bombings in Casablanca in May 2003 shook Morocco's budding democracy, leading to mass arrests and claims of abuse. The bombing of four commuter trains in Madrid in March contributed to the ouster of Spain's government and the withdrawal of its troops from Iraq.

Officials say the terrorist movement has benefited from the rapid spread of radical Islam's message among potential recruits worldwide who are motivated by Al Qaeda's anti- Western doctrine, the continuing Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the insurgency in Iraq.

The Iraq war, which President Bush says is necessary to build a safer world, has emerged as a new front in the battle against terrorism and a rallying point for a seemingly endless supply of young extremists willing to die in a jihad, or holy war.

Intelligence and counter-terrorism officials said Iraq also was replacing Afghanistan and the Russian republic of Chechnya as the premier location for on-the-job training for the next phase of violence against the West and Arab regimes.

In Iraq, a problem has been created that didn't exist there before, said Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere of France, dean of Europe's anti-terrorism investigators. The events in Iraq have had a profound impact on the entirety of the jihad movement.

Officials warn that radical Islam is fanning extremism in moderate Islamic countries such as Morocco, where the threat of terrorism has escalated with unexpected speed and ferocity, and re-energizing adherents in old hot spots such as Kenya and Yemen.

In recent weeks, police thwarted an attack against a U.S. target in Morocco at the last minute, and concerns have increased sharply about the possibility of attacks in Kenya, U.S. and foreign officials say.

The Madrid bombings and arrests in Britain this summer highlight Europe's emergence as a danger zone. Long used by extremists as a haven for recruitment and planning attacks elsewhere, the continent now is believed to be a target itself, especially countries backing the Iraq war.

Al Qaeda's transformation since the destruction of its Afghan training camps nearly three years ago has been chronicled extensively. Arrests and killings of senior leaders and the shutting down of major avenues of financing further fragmented the network.

Bush said at the Republican National Convention this month that more than three-quarters of Al Qaeda's leadership had been killed or captured.

Among those arrested are Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, alleged planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Abu Zubeida, who oversaw the global network and helped recruit for the training bases in Afghanistan.

Administration officials contend that information from interrogations helped prevent new attacks and unravel the network, leaving Al Qaeda too diminished to carry out a strike as complex as that of Sept. 11.

Polls indicate that voters trust Bush to handle the fight against terrorism better than his Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry.

A far less reassuring assessment of the condition of Islamic extremism emerged from the interviews with government intelligence officials, religious figures and counter-terrorism experts in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

Although opinions are not unanimous and ambiguities remain, there is a consensus that Al Qaeda's leadership still exerts some control over attacks worldwide. However, veterans of the extremist movement have demonstrated a new autonomy in using the group's ideology and training techniques to launch attacks with little or no direct contact with the leaders.

Any assessment that the global terror movement has been rolled back or that even one component, Al Qaeda, is on the run is optimistic and most certainly incorrect, said M.J. Gohel, head of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a London think tank. Bin Laden's doctrines are now playing themselves out all over the world. Destroying Al Qaeda will not resolve the problem.

U.S. and foreign intelligence officials said the Bush administration's focus on the body count of Al Qaeda leaders and its determination to stop the next attack meant comparatively few resources were devoted to understanding the threat.

Michael Scheuer, a senior CIA official, said in an interview that agents wound up chasing our tails to capture suspects and follow up leads at the expense of countering the rapid spread of Al Qaeda and the international jihad.

Scheuer, chief of the CIA's Bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999, now plays a broader role in counter-terrorism at the agency. He is the author of Imperial Hubris, a recent book that criticized U.S. counter-terrorism policy; the interview with him occurred before the CIA restricted his conversations with reporters.

Another counter-terrorism expert who works as a consultant for the U.S. government and its allies said Scheuer's criticism had been echoed elsewhere.

I think they're deluged with the immediate stuff and I think their horizons are also very, very short-term, said the consultant, who spoke on condition of anonymity. One of the biggest complaints I hear when talking to intelligence services around the world is that the Americans are so interested in the short term, preventing attacks and getting credit.

Anti-terrorism experts who fault the administration's strategy and its optimism argue that concentrating on individual plots and operatives obscures the need to address the broader dimensions of Islamic extremism and makes it impossible to mount an effective defense.

The Al Qaeda movement now appears to be more of an ideology than an organization, spreading worldwide among cells inspired by the Sept. 11 attacks.

Adherents generally share a few basic principles: an overarching belief that Muslims must take up arms in a holy war against the Judeo-Christian West, a profound sense of indignation over the deaths of Muslims in Palestinian territories and Iraq, and a conviction that secular rulers should be replaced by Islamic governments.

But beyond that, their concerns often splinter along the lines of geography, local politics and the intricacies of Islamic thought. A Moroccan is unlikely to pursue the same targets or even agree with the strategy of his Saudi counterparts. Saudis, in turn, are fighting bitterly among themselves over whether it's more important to battle the royal family at home or the Americans in Iraq.

The inadequate response to the threat is not unique to Washington.

European officials also see gaps in their policies, particularly when it comes to understanding the complexity of the situation, said Gijs de Vries, the counter-terrorism coordinator for the European Union.

Al Qaeda is increasingly being invoked as an ideological motivation of Islamic radicals, he said. There is a type of diffuse jihadism, which on the one hand consists of loosely structured small cells and on the other hand ideology.

Shift to Smaller Strikes

A new cadre of second-generation Al Qaeda commanders has compensated for the damage to the network by stepping up the pace of attacks with smaller strikes on soft targets.

The strategy relies on a limited number of veteran operatives trained in Afghanistan who function with a high degree of autonomy. They recruit foot soldiers through mosques, local groups and the Internet, then provide on-site training in bomb-making and tactics.

Senior counter-terrorism authorities in the U.S. and Europe say they are not certain how much central control is exercised over these independent operators - or even whether they are linked to one another in a formal manner.

But officials said evidence indicated that attacks in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Turkey during the last 16 months were part of a loosely coordinated pattern that could be traced to Bin Laden and his lieutenants.

Based primarily on intercepted communications from Iran to Saudi Arabia by U.S. listening posts, U.S. and European officials said orders for the suicide bombings in the Saudi capital of Riyadh on May 12, 2003, came from an Al Qaeda fugitive in Iran.

The officials said the most likely suspect was Saif Adel, a former Bin Laden bodyguard now believed to be Al Qaeda's military commander. But Western security officials said Adel was only one of numerous Al Qaeda figures granted haven by Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Iran denies that.

Extremists behind a string of attacks in Saudi Arabia since then operate with a large degree of independence, but Saudi security officials said the radicals retained links with Al Qaeda leaders in Iran and elsewhere by telephone and courier.

Authorities in Morocco and Europe said the go-ahead for the Casablanca suicide attacks on May 16, four days after the Riyadh bombings, was given at a meeting of Al Qaeda commanders in Istanbul, Turkey, in January 2003. They also said the young men who died carrying out the five nearly simultaneous bombings were recruited and trained by an Al Qaeda veteran.

Turkish extremists who bombed two synagogues, the British Consulate and the headquarters of a London-based bank in Istanbul in November 2003, killing more than 60 people, received money and advice on targets from Al Qaeda and its associates, according to testimony this month in the trial of 69 suspects.

One of the defendants, Adnan Ersoz, testified that he arranged a meeting in August 2001 in Afghanistan between Habib Akdas, the leader of the Turkish cell, and Mohammed Atef, also known as Abu Hafs Masri, a top Bin Laden lieutenant later killed in a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan.

He said that Akdas was promised money from Al Qaeda but that after Afghanistan's Taliban regime collapsed, the cell leader turned for financial help to Al Qaeda representatives in Iran and Syria, whom Ersoz did not identify. Akdas fled to Iraq immediately after the Istanbul bombings and participated in the kidnapping of several Turkish workers there, Turkish authorities said.

These smaller strikes cost relatively little, even compared with the modest $500,000 price tag for Sept. 11, indicating that the network has adapted to the clampdown on its financing methods.

Mohammed Bouzoubaa, Morocco's justice minister, said the bombings in Casablanca, which killed 45 people, cost $4,000.

Top suspects in the Madrid bombings have long-standing ties to Al Qaeda cells in Spain, Morocco and elsewhere. Still, six months after the bombings, investigators have no evidence that the planners received instructions or money from outside for the attacks that killed 191 people.

The methods used in Casablanca and Madrid illustrate what a senior European counter-terrorism official described as the most frightening scenario: local groups without previous experience, acting with minimal supervision from an interchangeable cast of Al Qaeda veterans.

By now we have no evidence, not even credible intelligence, that the Madrid group was steered, financed, organized from the outside, he said. So that might be the biggest success of Bin Laden.

In the past, Al Qaeda militants were mostly educated young men in their mid-20s and older who had strong religious convictions and middle-class backgrounds. They trained extensively at camps in Afghanistan and their missions were planned over months or years.

Recent attackers were drawn from a larger pool of alienated young men, reflecting the wider tug of Al Qaeda's doctrine, Bin Laden's status as a hero to some Muslims and fury at American foreign policy.

Some experts, like Richard Clarke, the former White House counter-terrorism chief, publicly blame the war in Iraq for strengthening the motivation of radical Islamic groups globally. Others still in governments around the world make the point privately, saying that the conflict in Iraq has broadened support for extremism.

De Vries, the EU counter-terrorism chief, acknowledged only that there were differences