Terror breeds fresh threats

Al-Qaida and allies adapt, strengthen, experts fear

`Type of diffuse jihadism'

Movement seems to favor small, coordinated attacks

September 26, 2004|By Douglas Frantz, Josh Meyer, Sebastian Rotella and Megan K. Stack | Douglas Frantz, Josh Meyer, Sebastian Rotella and Megan K. Stack,LOS ANGELES TIMES

RABAT, Morocco - Authorities have made little progress worldwide in defeating Islamic extremists affiliated with al-Qaida despite thwarting attacks and arresting high-profile figures, according to interviews with intelligence and law enforcement officials and outside experts.

Officials warn that the Bush administration's upbeat assessment of its successes is overly optimistic and masks its strategic failure to understand and combat al-Qaida's evolution.

Even before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida was a loosely organized network, but core leaders exercised considerable control over its operations. Since the loss of its base in Afghanistan and many of those leaders, the organization has dispersed its operatives and re-emerged as a lethal ideological movement.

Osama bin Laden might now serve more as an inspirational figure than a chief executive, and the war in Iraq is helping focus militants' anger, according to dozens of interviews with experts on terrorism in recent weeks on several continents.

They say that European and moderate Islamic countries have become targets. And instead of lengthy training at camps in Afghanistan, recruits have been quickly indoctrinated at home and deployed on attacks.

Officials and experts are alarmed by al-Qaida's switch from spectacular attacks that require years of planning to smaller, more numerous strikes on softer targets that can be carried out swiftly with little money or outside help.

The impact of smaller attacks can be enormous. Bombings in Casablanca in May 2003 shook Morocco's budding democracy, leading to mass arrests and claims of abuse. The bombing of four commuter trains in Madrid in March contributed to the fall of Spain's government in subsequent elections and the withdrawal of its troops from Iraq.

Officials say the movement has benefited from the rapid spread of radical Islam's message worldwide among potential recruits motivated by al-Qaida's anti-Western doctrine, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the insurgency in Iraq.

The Iraq war, which President Bush says is necessary to build a safer world, has emerged as a new front in the battle against militants and a rallying point for a seemingly endless supply of young extremists willing to die wherever they wage jihad, or holy war.

Counter-terrorism and intelligence officials said Iraq was also replacing Afghanistan and Chechnya as the premier location for on-the-job training for the next phase of violence against the West and Arab regimes.

"In Iraq, a problem has been created that didn't exist there before," said Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere of France, dean of Europe's anti-terrorism investigators. "The events in Iraq have had a profound impact on the entirety of the jihad movement."

Officials warn that radical Islam is fanning extremism in moderate Islamic countries, such as Morocco, and re-energizing adherents in old hot spots, such as Kenya and Yemen.

In recent weeks, police thwarted an attack against a U.S. target in Morocco at the last minute, and concerns have increased sharply about the possibility of attacks in Kenya, U.S. and foreign officials say.

The Madrid bombings and subsequent arrests in Britain this summer highlight Europe's emergence as a danger zone. Long used by extremists as a haven for recruitment and planning attacks elsewhere, the continent - especially its countries backing the Iraq war - is now believed to be a target itself.

A changing network

Al-Qaida's transformation since the destruction of its Afghan training camps nearly three years ago has been chronicled. Arrests and killings of senior leaders and the shutdown of financing avenues further fragmented the network.

Bush said at the Republican National Convention this month that more than three-quarters of al-Qaida's leadership had been killed or captured.

Among those arrested are Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, alleged planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Abu Zubeida, who oversaw the global network and helped recruit for the training bases in Afghanistan.

Administration officials contend that information from interrogations helped prevent new attacks and unravel the network, leaving al-Qaida too diminished to carry out a strike as complex as that of Sept. 11.

A less reassuring assessment of the condition of Islamic extremism emerged from the interviews with government intelligence officials, religious figures and counter-terrorism experts in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

Although opinions are not unanimous and ambiguities remain, there is a consensus that al-Qaida's leadership still exerts some control over attacks worldwide. However, veterans of the extremist movement have demonstrated a new autonomy in using the group's ideology and training techniques to launch attacks with little or no direct contact with the leaders.

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