Same group, more terror

Al-Qaida: Indications exist that Osama bin Laden's organization, even if weakened, still has the means to kill.

October 20, 2002|By THE ECONOMIST

Was the Bali disaster part of a pattern of new al-Qaida attacks? George Bush thinks so.

Monday, he linked the nightclub bombing to two recent incidents: the apparent suicide bombing of a French-flagged ship, the Limburg, off Yemen on Oct. 6, and a series of shootings, by civilians in pickup trucks or sports utility vehicles, at American Marines training in Kuwait. On Oct. 8, one Marine died in such an attack and another was wounded - and this in the most pro-Western country in the region.

U.S. intelligence officials agree with the president. Investigators examining the hole in the Limburg found the fiberglass wreckage of a small boat and are beginning to treat the incident as a near-copy of the al-Qaida attack on the USS Cole off Yemen two years ago. In Kuwait, local officials say 15 men have confessed to helping plan the shootings of Oct. 8; some are said to have links with al-Qaida, and to have trained in its camps in Afghanistan.

These attacks have coincided with the possible re-emergence of al-Qaida's top men. On Oct. 7, the al-Jazeera TV station in Qatar broadcast an audiotape in which, allegedly, Osama bin Laden promised to repay the United States "twofold" for any attack on Muslim countries.

A week later, al-Jazeera received a fax, apparently signed by bin Laden, that praised the attacks in Yemen and Kuwait as a strike at "the umbilical cord of the Christians" and said that neither al-Qaida nor the Taliban had been weakened.

Another audiotape was broadcast Oct. 8, this time from bin Laden's top aide, Ayman Zawahiri: It, too, praised the attack on French interests, and advised these "deputies of America" to retreat from the region "before they lose everything."

Zawahiri was thought to have been wounded last winter during an American airstrike in Afghanistan in which several of his relatives died. He may have fled to Pakistan. His audiotape appears genuine and recent. About bin Laden, intelligence officers are less sure. He last surfaced on a videotape made in December, and his audiotape contained no contemporary information. The fax, which does, has not been firmly linked to him. But he, too, may be in Pakistan.

Al-Qaida is known to be recruiting and seeking allies among Pakistani militant groups; and another senior al-Qaeda figure, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, is believed to be directing worldwide operations from a hiding place in Karachi, Pakistan's former capital.

But Western intelligence officials increasingly believe that the nature of al-Qaida has changed, and that the Bali bombing demonstrates it.

Weakened by the disruption of its finances and communications, with its base destroyed and its leaders in flight, it has become a loose and ever-shifting alliance of like-minded groups. These, though they may share a common militant Islamist ideology, are essentially independent cells working locally. Rather than enormous orchestrated set pieces, like the attacks of Sept. 11, their operations are smaller and - for all the wild rhetoric - less ambitious.

They remain extremely dangerous, not least because such "killer cells," as Bush calls them, seem to be growing and spawning imitations. But the president remains confident that America can fight terror simultaneously on this front and in Iraq. In his mind, of course (though he has not produced the evidence), they also remain connected.

"We need to think," he said Monday, expanding this unproven theme, "about Saddam Hussein using al-Qaida to do his dirty work, to not leave fingerprints behind."

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