Terror threat looms large

Published December 14, 2004 9:22PM (EST)

From Europe to Central Asia to the offices of the FBI, a wave of articles out this week paints an alarming picture of the virulent threat that al-Qaida remains.

Europe's demographic problem
Some German intelligence officials have argued recently that the terrorist network is in decline, but the New America Foundation's Peter Bergen says Europe, with its huge clusters of disenfranchised Muslims, has a daunting problem on its hands. It is, of course, a multilateral issue: Al-Qaida cells and affiliated groups based in Europe remain the "most pressing threat," Bergen says, to the U.S. homeland.

"The attacks on three Madrid trains on March 11, which killed 191 commuters, demonstrated that Al Qaeda-inspired jihadist groups on the Continent are a real threat. And just as it is hard to imagine 9/11 without the 'Hamburg cell,' future terrorist attacks damaging to U.S. national security probably will have a strong European connection. For example, European members of Al Qaeda could sneak into the United States to launch an attack on the scale of the one in Madrid or they could detonate a radioactive 'dirty' bomb in London's financial district, an event that would have a devastating effect on the global economy and, by extension, the U.S. economy. How Al Qaeda succeeds or fails in Europe is critical to its future in the West. Although few American Muslims have embraced Al Qaeda's ideology, that is not the case with Europe's 20 million Muslims.

"At a Dec. 2 conference on Al Qaeda in Washington, Steven Simon, former senior director for transnational threats at the National Security Council, described Europe as both a 'new field of jihad' for Al Qaeda and a 'ripening' threat. Rohan Gunaratna, author of 'Inside Al Qaeda,' described Europe as a 'staging ground' for future attacks against the U.S. and said European governments had been overly tolerant of the terrorist organization's support networks in their countries."

The Pakistan problem
Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that U.S. efforts to take out an ever-dangerous Osama bin Laden and his key henchmen have fallen short.

"More than three years after the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and New York transformed Osama bin Laden into the most wanted man in the world, the search for him remains stalled, frustrated by the remote topography of his likely Pakistani sanctuary, stymied by a Qaeda network that remains well financed and disciplined, sidetracked by the distractions of the Iraq war, and, perhaps most significantly, limited by deep suspicion of the United States among Pakistanis.

"Bin Laden remains much more than just an iconic figurehead of Islamic militancy, most American intelligence officials now say. From a presumed hiding place on the Pakistani side of the Afghan-Pakistan border, he controls an elite terrorist cell devoted to attacking in the United States, the officials say they suspect. They contend that he personally oversees the group of Qaeda operatives, which he hopes to use for another 'spectacular' event, like the Sept. 11 hijacking plot."

Pervez Musharraf may be a key part of the problem. His status as a "close ally" of the Bush White House in the war on terrorism keeps the Pakistani president walking a high wire, but the Times report indicates that he remains dangerously beholden to Islamist sympathies at home.

"Pakistan does not permit American military and intelligence forces in Afghanistan to cross the border to go after militants. This prohibition on cross-border 'hot pursuit' makes it relatively easy for Taliban and Qaeda fighters to initiate attacks on American bases in Afghanistan, and then quickly escape to the safety of Pakistan. American soldiers have complained about being fired on from inside Pakistan by foreign militants while Pakistani border guards sat and watched.

"As a result of the restrictions, American military and intelligence personnel in Afghanistan are no longer really hunting for Mr. bin Laden, an intelligence official said."

The FBI's personnel problem
While the U.S. arguably will always be vulnerable to some form of terrorist attack, the FBI is buckling under the demands of combating the threat, the Los Angeles Times reports.

"The rapid turnover of top-level managers and highly trained specialists since Sept. 11 is causing disorder within the FBI and undercutting its efforts to meet the mandate of Congress to dramatically expand its intelligence and counter-terrorism capabilities. Its new intelligence arm, which is to form the core of a transformed FBI, is losing dozens of analysts who are supposed to connect the dots to protect the country from another terrorist attack.

"All four members of the top management team announced by Director Robert S. Mueller III shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks have left their jobs -- as have their successors. Some other officials have had three or even four jobs since the attacks. Since Sept. 11, five people have held the bureau's top counter-terrorism job. Five others filled the top computer job within a 24-month period. And more than 1,000 other senior FBI agents and officials are eligible for retirement, boding a further exodus of employees who form the agency's backbone. In figures provided recently to Congress, the FBI estimated that the number of top managers below the senior executive rank would decline by 16% -- about 70 people -- in the next year alone."

A further confidence booster: The bureau's office of strategic planning has been without a director for months.

Said one former terrorism investigator, "Every time you call headquarters, a different guy at the desk would answer the phone. You would have to start everything all over again. It is not just at that top level. It is at every level. Everybody is kind of in a state of flux all the time."

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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