Five and a half years have passed since Sept. 11, 2001, and the beginning of the war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The physical presence of Osama bin Laden’s network was largely destroyed at the time — the terrorist camps, which had trained an estimated 20,000 men, quickly reduced to rubble. Two years ago, the White House crowed that two-thirds of al-Qaida’s leadership had been eliminated. “We’re winning,” President Bush claimed recently. “Al-Qaida is on the run.”
But are those terrorists really on the run? Of course, there can be no doubt that the network no longer has nearly the capacity it had when it organized the 9/11 attacks. But the attempts to reorganize are obvious, and the new camps are an indication that the efforts have been successful. According to Time magazine, each of the camps has the capacity to train between 10 and 300 jihadists. “We know they exist, but it’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” the magazine quotes a U.S. military official in Afghanistan as saying.
The CIA and Vice President Dick Cheney have already made their concerns clear to the Pakistani government of President Pervez Musharraf. To back up their claims, they brought along marked-up maps. Not much is visible on the black-and-white images at first glance. However, the maps show small but significant settlements; the camps U.S. intelligence believes are al-Qaida’s new training facilities are often little more than farmlike structures consisting of two or three houses surrounded by high walls.
Pakistan has always had trouble controlling the so-called tribal areas where the camps are located. Tribal leaders operate here as they please and offer shelter to members of al-Qaida and the Taliban. Although some U.S. military officials are already discussing air attacks on Pakistani territory without Musharraf’s approval, those who prefer not to undermine the authority of the country’s military leader any further still have the upper hand at the Pentagon. “We believe they could do more,” U.S. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell said bluntly in February, referring to the America’s Pakistani allies.
Al-Qaida has proved to be extremely robust in recent years. The network’s reaction to the war in Afghanistan came in two parts. The veterans, bin Laden ordered, were to return to their home countries and continue the organization’s work from there. Terrorism experts dubbed the phenomenon “al-Qaida comes home,” in an effort to make sense of the network’s sudden presence virtually everywhere, as attacks were executed globally — from Bali, Indonesia, to Madrid, and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to London.
The second response was to open up the network to its sympathizers. Al-Qaida leaders made it clear that all the organization’s supporters should feel free to commit acts of terror in the name of the network, and they provided both the ideology and the necessary know-how.
Although it acknowledged both tactics with horror, the Western world was convinced about one thing: that at least al-Qaida’s former headquarters had been wiped out.
But apparently al-Qaida was also capable of finding ways to revitalize itself in this respect. A whole new generation of al-Qaida fighters has moved up the ranks, intelligence services warn.
Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden’s second in command, could be pulling more strings than was previously believed. According to CIA agents operating in Pakistan, the Egyptian man has the capability to respond to inquiries from other field commanders within 24 hours. “The days of rigorous caution seem to be over, and men like al-Zawahri are becoming more self-confident,” a Western intelligence official recently said in Islamabad, Pakistan. In one case, intelligence agents even intercepted instructions on how to deal with prisoners. “The chain of command has been re-established,” the New York Times quoted a U.S. official as saying.
It was the investigations that followed on the heels of terrorist attacks in the West that brought the intelligence agencies to the conclusion that al-Qaida must have a stronger organizational structure than previously thought. Last summer, Islamists planned to blow up several passenger aircraft en route from London to the United States. The plan was thwarted, but the tracks led, for the first time in a long while, back to a known al-Qaida heavyweight. According to the Times, Egyptian Abu Ubaidah al-Masri is viewed as a key figure in the planned attack. He is considered a possible successor to Hamza Rabia, the al-Qaida operations chief who was killed in 2005 and was already the fourth successor of the legendary Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Other known al-Qaida cadres are beginning to resurface. They act as liaisons in Iran, travel frequently back and forth between Iraq and Pakistan to exchange information, and regularly cross the border into Afghanistan.
No one assumes that al-Qaida is as well organized today as it was before 9/11, when there were paychecks, memos from bin Laden and regulated vacation periods. Even the new camps are not comparable to the terrorist schools of days gone by. But there is a clear resurgence nonetheless.
There are too many uncontrolled areas for al-Qaida to be driven completely out of the region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The organization is relatively safe there, and Western intelligence services believe that some of its members are busy developing new international attack scenarios.
Berlin-based terrorism expert Guido Steinberg of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs also sees a “clear trend toward reorganization.” But he points out that it is not clear how close the ties are between certain named individuals and al-Qaida.
Steinberg does not see a new al-Qaida headquarters developing. “If there is reorganization, it will take a new form,” he believes. In his view, the most recent developments can best be described as a “Pakistanization of al-Qaida.” Steinberg notes that the importance of Pakistani militant groups has grown tremendously in recent years. For example, the July 7, 2005, London subway and bus bombings and the prevented attacks of July 21, 2005, were traced back to Pakistan. “There is a Pakistani terror infrastructure and there are Pakistani volunteers,” says Steinberg. “What is new is that al-Qaida is taking advantage of this.”
The London connection does appear to be turning into an important one for Islamist terrorism. Britons, the Times reported, are increasingly being accepted into Pakistani military camps. U.S. intelligence czar Mike McConnell recently conceded that attacks against the West are most likely being planned in Pakistan.
Steinberg believes nonetheless that the revival of al-Qaida in Pakistan is not as clear-cut as some believe. But his argument is no less disconcerting.
He points out that Algerian jihadists, for example, recently changed the name of their organization to “Al-Qaida in the Islamic West” — another indication that bin Laden’s network is still viable. Steinberg believes that al-Qaida attacks on Europe could just as easily be planned in North Africa as they are in Pakistan.
According to reports in the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, French intelligence agencies share similar concerns; they are worried that jihadists in Algeria or Morocco could be planning to use the French presidential election slated for May to stage a spectacular attack modeled after the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which also took place shortly before an election and, as predicted by al-Qaida strategists, led to a change in government and Spain’s withdrawal from Iraq. Like Germany, France has troops stationed in Afghanistan. The April 11 bomb attack in Algiers is further proof of al-Qaida’s resurgence in North Africa.
In light of recent developments, American terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman said that “Al-Qaida is more dangerous than it was on 9/11.” But Berlin expert Steinberg favors a more sober way of looking at the situation. “Al-Qaida,” says Steinberg, “has demonstrated that it cannot simply be extinguished. That in itself is a triumph — because terrorists only need not to lose in order to win.”
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