Al-Qaida 'nimble,' 'patient'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - A year after the worst-ever international terrorist attack, Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network has lost its headquarters, its training camps, hundreds of fighters, two top managers and possibly bin Laden himself as a result of a U.S.-led war. But the organization remains a dangerous and ambitious foe.

Since Sept. 11, member cells or groups linked with al-Qaida have committed or attempted a series of deadly attacks in Pakistan, North Africa, Europe and East Asia. And the group wants to stage an attack "on a level that is larger than 9/11," said Francis X. Taylor, the State Department's top counterterrorism official.

"I believe that there are members of al-Qaida who want to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the U.S. military campaign and the U.S. campaign against terrorism by conducting a very large attack against U.S. or coalition interests somewhere in the world," Taylor said.

Whether al-Qaida is capable of such a scheme in its besieged and dispersed condition is unknown. But a key U.S. official who has followed the organization for years said: "What is unique and most dangerous about al-Qaida is that they are patient. They are patient and methodical in terms of their planning."

For example: Five years before the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa, bin Laden's men were studying pictures of the targets.

And al-Qaida, a range of officials says, remains capable of less spectacular strikes that could nevertheless claim many lives. U.S. officials say indications are clear that another attack is being planned, possibly overseas.

"It is not a rosy or comforting picture," said Paul Wilkinson, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Al-Qaida is known to be seeking weapons of mass destruction. Videotapes from before Sept. 11 that were recently aired by CNN show an unidentified toxic gas immobilizing a puppy.

Ahmed Ressam, a terrorist trained in Afghanistan who was convicted of plotting to detonate a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport, testified in July of last year that he had witnessed an al-Qaida experiment in which a dog died from a mixture of cyanide and sulfuric acid. He said the purpose was to show how the chemicals would be used against humans.

Trainees were shown how to put cyanide near the air intake of a building, Ressam testified.

Suspects in 90 countries

Al-Qaida's reach is said to extend beyond the 60 countries where it was known to operate last September. A senior State Department official said that 2,400 suspects have been arrested or detained in more than 90 countries.

Some members of the group are believed by U.S. intelligence agencies to be in an area of northern Iraq controlled by the radical Islamic group Ansar al-Islam, which opposes the region's secular Kurdish leadership.

Facing a continued al-Qaida threat, the Bush administration is considering a major change in the policy governing U.S. covert operations. As a complement to CIA operatives, the Pentagon is weighing the dispatch of Green Berets, Navy SEALs and other commandos to disrupt, capture or kill terrorists in their hideouts in various countries.

The proposed tactics would implement President Bush's doctrine, enunciated in June at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, of striking pre-emptively against threats to the United States and its forces and allies overseas.

Al-Qaida, Arabic for "the base," is an umbrella organization formed by bin Laden in the 1980s of Arabs who joined the fight to drive Soviet forces from Afghanistan.

The long-term objective now is to expel Westerners and American influence from the Muslim world and replace governments with a single transnational Muslim regime.

Committed to a bitterly anti-Western form of Islam, the organization is led by a core of fewer than 100 people close to bin Laden - mostly Egyptians, Saudis and Yemenis. Their plots, officials say, have been disrupted by the war in Afghanistan, which drove out the Taliban regime that had given al-Qaida sanctuary since 1996.

The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan deprived al-Qaida of its main base of operations and terrorist training. During the course of the war, hundreds of suspected al-Qaida and Taliban members have been killed. Of the estimated 2,400 members arrested or detained around the world, about 600 are being held in the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and 80 are being held in Afghanistan.

A few key leaders have been killed or captured.

Mohammed Atef, a military commander who supervised the training of al-Qaida recruits at camps in Afghanistan, died in November in a U.S. airstrike.

Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian described by analysts as the chief of operations and the group's institutional memory, was captured in Pakistan in March. He is being interrogated by American authorities at an undisclosed location.

Scattered leadership

Others, including bin Laden and his top lieutenant, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahri of Egypt, have dropped from sight.

The intelligence community thinks bin Laden is most likely alive, in either Pakistan or Afghanistan, said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat. Likely havens are the remote border areas near Khowst, Gardeyz, Orgun and Asadabad in Afghanistan and Waziristan and the tribal-controlled northwest frontier in Pakistan.

Al-Qaida members may also be in safe houses in the port of Karachi or other major cities in Pakistan. Intelligence officials say al-Qaida members have found a haven in parts of Iraqi Kurdistan that are under the control of Ansar al-Islam.

Pentagon officials say leading al-Qaida figures are also in Iran, although they have not confirmed reports circulating in the region that these include Saif al-Adel, bin Laden's security chief, and Mahfouz Ould al-Walid, an al-Qaida spiritual leader.

Moderate leaders in the Muslim world, meanwhile, are worried that exiled terrorists are "coming home" after losing their haven in Afghanistan and will try to cause unrest, said Matthew Levitt, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Administration officials and analysts agree that al-Qaida has been damaged. It is "weakened but not destroyed," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert who directs the Washington office of RAND Corp., which advises the government on national security.

"They're trying to hide and stay alive," a senior State Department official said, suggesting that the group's top leaders are too preoccupied with survival to manage a major plot with the close attention to detail and careful coordination that was shown Sept. 11.

'He's an inspiration'

But the importance of this leadership in sustaining al-Qaida's war against the West is unclear. Some analysts say bin Laden is more important as a symbol than as a field general.

"Even if he's dead, he's an inspiration," said John Arquilla, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

Recent reports suggest that al-Qaida was never a tightly run operation. Al-Qaida computer files obtained in Afghanistan by The Wall Street Journal reveal an organization riven with dissension.

Yet al-Qaida operatives managed to carry out concurrent U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, an assault on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 and the Sept. 11 attacks.

Despite strong intelligence cooperation by friendly and even not-so-friendly governments, U.S. officials are frustrated by how little they know about individual al-Qaida cells.

The line is blurry between al-Qaida and the groups around the world with links to it. Hoffman, the RAND terrorism specialist, said al-Qaida operates in a top-down and bottom-up fashion.

Planned terror "spectaculars" draw close attention from al-Qaida leaders, he said; at the same time, local militants outside the central leadership have come up with ideas for attacks and sought al-Qaida's imprimatur.

Thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of would-be terrorists have been trained in al-Qaida camps in Sudan and later in Afghanistan, forming what one Asian diplomat calls an "alumni association" worldwide. Al-Qaida also has disseminated a 13-volume holy-war encyclopedia and a training manual. Hoffman said al-Qaida "clones" are following the path blazed by bin Laden's organization.

"We had always assessed that operations were developed from bin Laden; he told people what to do," said a senior State Department official. "I think that's still true for some of their major operations, but I also think they have a number of independent actors out there who have the authority, having had the training, to find a good target and go after it."

Attacks and attempts

In Pakistan, groups linked or sympathetic to al-Qaida have carried out at least nine attacks against American, European and Christian targets over the past year, including a car bombing June 14 outside the U.S. Consulate in Karachi and the kidnapping and killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl. And U.S. officials fear for the stability of President Pervez Musharraf's military regime, a key ally in the Afghanistan war.

"The real danger in Pakistan is that Musharraf will not get control and in trying to exercise control [the militants] strike back and undermine his government," the senior U.S. official said.

Defense officials say Pakistan's military is moving too slowly to round up al-Qaida members, particularly the hundreds believed to be in the tribal areas, and some U.S. officers want to conduct operations.

They worry that from the border region, al-Qaida could destabilize Afghanistan.

"I think we've lost the momentum. I think we're just not aggressive enough," said a senior military officer. "We've got to get into Pakistan. It's a safe-haven issue with us."

Pakistan isn't the only place where al-Qaida has shown its resilience.

The Tunisian government fired two top security officials after a truck bombing in April at a historic synagogue that killed at least 19 people, including 14 German tourists, and caused tourism in Tunisia to plummet. Bin Laden associate Sulaiman Abu Ghaith told Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based news channel, that al-Qaida had carried out the attack to support the Palestinian cause.

A U.S. official said the attack in Tunisia reflects a new push by al-Qaida to "recruit among and gain support in local extremist circles."

The truck bombing - with the death of tourists in a country that is a popular vacation spot for Europeans - was a harsh reminder of Europe's continued vulnerability, despite the extensive effort by intelligence and police agencies to uncover and keep a close watch on al-Qaida on the Continent.

The visibility of this kind of attack helps al-Qaida with fund raising, said Senator Graham. "They need to show their financial sources they have an organization," he said.

Activity in Asia

Groups linked to al-Qaida also extend across the Asian-Pacific region, where authorities have uncovered the outlines of "a large international terrorist network," according to the State Department.

Despite the dispatch of American advisers to help the Philippines fight Abu Sayyaf, the group, which is linked to al-Qaida, is still able to carry out its signature kidnappings, according to the Philippines military.

In December, Singapore authorities arrested 13 people in a plot to attack U.S. naval vessels as well as embassies and diplomatic posts belonging to the United States, Britain, Israel and Australia.

Although some of the suspects trained in Afghanistan, said Hoffman of RAND, this plot was a case of a major operation planned by a group "acting on its own but following the al-Qaida playbook."

The 13 people arrested belonged to Jemaah Islamiah, which wants to create an Islamic state comprising Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the southern Philippines. The organization has ties going back decades with Islamic clerics in Indonesia.

'Capable of adapting'

Elsewhere, al-Qaida members have found protection in the tribal areas of Yemen, whose leaders are getting American military help.

In Africa, the wide stretches of the southern Sahara "could be inviting" for the organization, a U.S. official said. Al-Qaida shares money, people and information with al-Ittihad al-Islam, the largest militant Muslim group in Somalia, and officials fear it could gain a foothold in other weak or collapsed states on the continent.

Fighters believed to be allied with al-Qaida are also reported to be operating in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge and Chechnya, the breakaway Russian republic.

If there is an overriding lesson about al-Qaida from the past year, it may be, as one European diplomat said, that it is "a nimble organization, capable of adapting." This is clear in how the network raises and moves money.

'Trouble moving money'

The United States and its allies in Europe and the Persian Gulf have been successful in choking off many of al-Qaida's sources of cash. The U.S. Treasury says more than $112 million in terrorist assets has been frozen in the past year.

"We do know they're having trouble moving money; they're having trouble raising money," a Treasury official said.

But al-Qaida also needs less, no longer having to support the Taliban regime or its training camps in Afghanistan. And the network is finding ways to shift money around, successfully evading investigators from the United States and other countries.

If one front company is shut down, "we've seen them reorganizing and basically reformulating their corporate structure to do the same things they've been doing," a U.S. Treasury official said. "To a certain extent they're doing a good job of hiding their operations."

Squeezed out of the international banking system, they're making use of couriers and hawala networks, which employ trusted associates abroad to deliver funds. Officials say al-Qaida may be moving commodities - gold, diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and the blue-lavender gemstone tanzanite - rather than currency. Some cells finance themselves and their violent plots through crime.

'Fit and well'

A draft United Nations report concludes that al-Qaida "continues to have access to considerable financial and other resources" and that its financial network is "fit and well" - conclusions rejected by the Bush administration.

The draft report, first disclosed by The Washington Post, said efforts to shut down the network of raising and distributing money have been hampered by inadequate auditing of religious charities, lax border controls and steep evidentiary standards set by European governments.

As scattered remnants and allies of al-Qaida try to destabilize the newly formed government of Afghanistan, a senior official pointed out a disturbing development in areas of the country where warlords retain links with the terrorists: a revival of the opium trade. If other revenue sources dry up, drugs may be used to bankroll terrorism.

Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.

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