Iraq war providing a boost to al-Qaida

Terror network is using clash as propaganda tool in holy war against West

November 22, 2003|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The American invasion and occupation of Iraq has provided al-Qaida with a powerful propaganda tool in its holy war against the West, injecting new energy into the worldwide network even though many of its key operatives are in jail or dead, its top leadership is on the run and its sources of money are shrinking, according to international security analysts.

While exhorting Muslims to turn Iraq into a new anti-American battleground, the network has staged spectacularly bloody bombings in neighboring Turkey and Saudi Arabia in hopes of undermining their pro-U.S. governments and demonstrating that it remains a dangerous force, analysts say.

Meanwhile, al-Qaida and related groups have used Web sites, videos and publications throughout the Muslim world to seek new warriors, proclaiming its message that Islam is under threat from the United States and that the region's governments are powerless to defend it.

"Iraq is a rallying cause for al-Qaida - it's allowed them to attract new recruits," said Kenneth Katzman, a terrorism specialist at the Congressional Research Service, the think tank for the House and Senate. "This was an organization that was under enormous pressure. Iraq has put new wind in its sails, definitely."

Indeed, the period since the buildup to the war in Iraq might mark a new stage in the life of this adaptable network, which is showing an ability to regroup and reinvent itself even as it comes under fierce attack.

"We think we can decapitate them by going after leaders," said Zachary Abuza, a specialist on militant Islamic groups in Southeast Asia. But instead the groups "are going to morph and be able to reorganize with the same principles but with different organizations and leaders."

President Bush has frequently described the invasion of Iraq as part of the nation's overall war on terror launched after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. While the president's justification for the Iraq invasion remains a focus of worldwide debate, the conflict's role in energizing al-Qaida raises new doubts about whether it can be seen as a successful milestone in the war on terrorism, at least in the short term.

A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, played down the impact of the war on al-Qaida's strength. While saying it had served as a rallying cry, he had seen "no real evidence" that the war had boosted recruitment for the network.

As officials explain the phases in the American anti-terror strategy, the invasion of Afghanistan eliminated al-Qaida's haven. The war in Iraq eliminated a dictatorial regime with what National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has called "broad and deep" links to terrorism and the intent to amass an arsenal of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons that might fall into the hands of militants.

Separately, a worldwide assault on al-Qaida proceeded, drawing on intelligence and law-enforcement agencies of many nations, in addition to military forces. Al-Qaida has been badly damaged. Its bases and training camps in Afghanistan were wiped out. Nearly half its leadership has been killed or captured, and tens of millions of dollars have been seized.

Decentralizing

Throughout the world, al-Qaida suspects are under watch or in hiding. The two top leaders, Saudi-born Osama bin Laden and the Egyptian physician Ayman al-Zawahiri, are widely believed to be holed up somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

This heavy pressure has forced the network to become much less centralized. As top leaders worry about their survival, like-minded affiliate groups are exercising more autonomy, analysts said. No attacks approaching the scale, audacity and sophistication of Sept. 11's have occurred since, although al-Qaida's hand has been seen in bombings that have cumulatively resulted in hundreds of casualties in Morocco, Tunisia, Kenya, Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and, many analysts believe, in Iraq.

"Rather than a global network, [al-Qaida] is a series of regional networks. There is still coordination, but not as much as there once was," said Daniel Byman, an international security specialist at Georgetown University.

From an ideological standpoint, however, the American actions in Afghanistan and, more recently, in Iraq have handed bin Laden and radical Islamist holy warriors a new weapon that they are using to mobilize their ranks and attract new followers, feeding on a widespread sense of humiliation in the Muslim world because of back-to-back defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"There is a strong sense among experts who look at this that [the war in Iraq] has breathed new life into the jihadist movement," said Daniel Benjamin, a terrorism specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "More and more groups are trying to take up the al-Qaida cause. There is a general movement toward more radical thinking in the Muslim world."

Anti-U.S. feeling grows

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