The changing face of global terror

Al-Qaida is launching more-frequent, smaller attacks on U.S. allies

A Shift In Strategy

Bombings In London

July 08, 2005|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - If al-Qaida turns out to have been behind yesterday's bombings in London, as British officials have suggested, it would be further evidence of the changing face of the extremist group, terrorism experts said yesterday.

Al-Qaida, they said, is global, opportunistic, fragmented -and still very potent. The group's battle against Western society is both a war and an evolving propaganda campaign.

Since 9/11, the pace of al-Qaida-sponsored attacks has quickened. They now occur worldwide about every three months, compared with under once a year before 2001, said Brian Jenkins, who has studied terrorism for more then three decades. But the number of casualties per attack has been lower, he added.

These smaller attacks are part of an emerging two-pronged strategy by al-Qaida, said Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA's unit focused on Osama bin Laden and the author of Imperial Hubris, a book that critiqued U.S. government anti-terror policies.

The older part of the al-Qaida strategy, the bigger, 9/11-style attacks, often involved years of planning. The more-recent phase is part of a violent campaign against 23 U.S. allies that al-Qaida has vowed to target.

"This is a whole different campaign," Scheuer said of bombings in Spain, Bali and elsewhere. "This is designed to attack our allies."

In waging the attacks, Scheuer said, al-Qaida is trying to turn the people of those countries against their U.S.-aligned governments. If the attacks were much larger, he said, they would risk rallying the people around their governments.

But that should not comfort Americans, he cautioned.

"They're saving the big one for us. We are their main enemy," he said. "The people who assume this is all they can do are kind of whistling past the graveyard."

Other analysts said there is a perception, deserved or not, that the United States is harder to penetrate, so al-Qaida-inspired holy warriors are going elsewhere - for now.

The smaller attacks also keep the group and its cause in the public eye, Jenkins said.

"In the meantime, it is imperative for them that they continue operations, not simply for what it does to us, but for what it does for them," Jenkins said, namely, attracting new fighters and financing.

The group that claimed responsibility for the London bombings, Secret Organization of al-Qaida in Europe, is unknown to analysts who track terrorism, and government officials have not identified the perpetrators of the attacks. This new organization would fit the post-9/11 trend of al-Qaida's becoming a movement of loosely affiliated, ad hoc groups.

Al-Qaida tends to seek out so-called "soft-targets" because they afford the greatest chance of success. On 9/11, U.S. airports turned out to be rather soft targets.

For an attack that will yield a significant number of casualties and far more fear, public transportation offers a more attractive option than other "easy-access" targets such as shopping malls, hotels or restaurants. In urban areas, subways are the central nervous system, so attacking one can severely disrupt a city and its economy.

"Terrorists like predictable results. Mass transit is great for that," said James Carafano, a security analyst with the Heritage Foundation. "You know where things are going, what time they leave, and you have people in a confined space."

Historically, transportation attacks also have proved deadlier, said Jenkins, director of the national transportation security center at the Mineta Transportation Institute, a think tank. Thirty-seven percent of terrorist attacks involving mass transit produce fatalities, he said, compared with 25 percent of all terrorist attacks.

For years, many terrorism experts have been expecting a major attack on Britain. Not only is it a close ally of the United States, but Britain has been the subject of repeated al-Qaida threats dating back at least to a 1998 religious call to arms by bin Laden. London's central mosque was infiltrated by radical Islamists. And two British citizens, "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid and Shaikh Omar Saeed, who was convicted in the kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, have been arrested in al-Qaida plots.

Yonah Alexander, director of the International Center for Terrorism Studies at the Potomac Institute, said al-Qaida is "very active in every country in Europe." Anti-terrorism efforts in European countries "disrupted the infrastructure of al-Qaida, but didn't disable it," he said.

The European terror infrastructure might be expanding. Freshly trained terrorists, or jihadists, appear to be returning to Europe from the war in Iraq, said David Kay, former chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq.

"We've now put a group of terrorists on steroids and given them training," he said. "The easiest place for them to move - and there are signs they are moving already - is Europe."

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