Alleged bomb plot fits al-Qaida pattern

War On Terrorism

August 11, 2006|By MOHAMAD BAZZI | MOHAMAD BAZZI,NEWSDAY

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- It bears all the hallmarks of al-Qaida: simultaneous suicide bombings against political or economic soft targets, designed to inflict heavy casualties and spread fear.

An alleged plot to destroy several U.S.-bound airliners with liquid explosives - which led to a series of arrests yesterday in Britain - could be the largest attack planned by al-Qaida or its affiliates since Sept. 11, 2001.

Although British authorities have not blamed al-Qaida directly, terrorism experts say the plan fits the group's pattern. What remains unclear is whether such an attack would be planned by Osama bin Laden and his deputies, or by homegrown groups.

The militant network founded by bin Laden in the late 1980s has transformed itself from a centralized group to a brand name used by an assortment of jihadist movements across the globe, according to experts on militancy in the Middle East.

Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, analysts say, al-Qaida has morphed into small, localized cells and affiliated groups that do not necessarily take orders from bin Laden and others in the old leadership.

An idea spreads

"Al-Qaida is now an idea, or even a political program, that has spread around the world," said Diaa Rashwan, a leading researcher on Islamic militants at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

"The leadership is isolated and we don't know if it can organize attacks, rather than inspire them."

Under five years of intense American pressure, experts and U.S. anti-terrorism officials thought that al-Qaida no longer had the resources to mount large-scale attacks such as those on Sept. 11.

Specialists say the new, grass-roots movement is focused on carrying out smaller-scale attacks, such as the March 2004 bombings of four commuter trains in Madrid and the July 2005 subway and bus bombings in London.

As the scope of the plot thwarted by British officials yesterday becomes clearer, that assessment of al-Qaida's capability might have to change.

"If this was ordered and planned by bin Laden, then Western intelligence was miscalculating how weakened al-Qaida had become," said an Arab security official involved in monitoring militants.

Higher stakes

The British conspiracy involved more plotters, extensive planning and technical skill than the Madrid and London bombings. It also could have caused far more casualties, killing hundreds and perhaps several thousand.

If it turns out that bin Laden was not directly involved and the attacks were being planned and financed by a local British group, then counterterrorism officials must deal with the possibility that such cells can inflict far greater damage than previously thought.

While they might act independently, analysts say, localized groups choose their targets based on al-Qaida's political priorities. In a series of letters and taped messages over the past four years, bin Laden and his top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, provided their followers with a framework for carrying out new attacks.

Self-activated

They urged strikes against U.S. interests and any other country that has troops in Iraq or Afghanistan. They recommended attacking soft targets that have economic importance, such as mass transit systems, and timing attacks to coincide with key political events.

One of bin Laden's former bodyguards in Afghanistan described the group's operations in an interview last year with Al-Quds Al-Arabi, a London-based Arabic newspaper.

"Every element of al-Qaida is self-activated," said the bodyguard, who was identified by a nom de guerre, Abu Jandal. "Whoever finds a chance to attack simply goes ahead. The decision is theirs alone."

Mohamad Bazzi writes for Newsday

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