Al-Qaida `nimble,' `patient'

Wanted: The war on terror has failed to dismantle Osama bin Laden's network, which has plotted attacks on 3 continents since Sept. 11.

2001 9/11 2002

One Year

September 02, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

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.

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