Threats extend beyond al-Qaida, experts say

Variety of extremists sympathetic to bin Laden are cause for concern, they say


WASHINGTON -- President Bush said yesterday that investigators don't have proof that the plan to down U.S.-bound airliners was orchestrated by Osama bin Laden but that it "looks like something al-Qaida would do."

Former intelligence officials and terrorism experts said questions about the plotters' links to al-Qaida might miss a larger point. More important, they said, is what the plot might reveal about the growing sympathy among Western Muslims for al-Qaida's ideology and the ability of those recruits to connect with terrorist sympathizers who have proliferated in Pakistan.

"I am struck by how often there is this, `Oh, is it linked with al-Qaida?' as if it were the be-all and end-all of whether the threat is serious and whether the threat is something we ought to worry about," said Paul Pillar, a former CIA senior Middle East analyst.

The terrorist threat has increased because of a growth in sympathetic groups, he said, not because of a strengthening of bin Laden's organization, which most experts think has been weakened by U.S. efforts since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"We are vulnerable to attack, and we need to worry about attacks from a wide variety of radical Islamist extremists, including cells and groups of a variety of nationalities, which may have little, if any, connection to al-Qaida," Pillar said.

The British suspects' ties to al-Qaida, though important for investigators trying to piece together the details of the plot, would be less significant for policy-makers concerned about warding off the next terrorist attack, he said.

It would be most worrisome, terrorism specialists said, if little or no operational al-Qaida connection was discovered. That would mean that the plotters, who were British citizens, were motivated to plan a sophisticated terrorist attack involving multiple suicide bombings without considerable outside help.

If strong al-Qaida ties to this plot are found, however, it would indicate that al-Qaida as an organization still has power, said Farhana Ali, a terrorism analyst with the Rand think tank.

That would be a significant element in assessing the effectiveness of the counterterrorism efforts by the United States and its allies over the past five years, terrorism specialists said.

"No matter how you slice it, it's bad," said Tom Sanderson, a counterterrorism expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noting that neither a resurgence in bin Laden's direction of terrorist plots nor sophisticated entrepreneurial terrorist plots give him solace.

"There's no silver lining at this point," he said.

Bush was hesitant yesterday, in his first comments on possible al-Qaida ties, to say definitively that al-Qaida's involvement suggested a likely connection.

"Before we actually claim al-Qaida, we want to make sure that we could prove it to you," he said in answer to a reporter's question during a visit to the State Department. "Of course, the minute I say it's al-Qaida, then you're going to step up and say, `Prove it.' So, therefore, I'm not going to say it until we have absolute proof."

Bush's comments echo those of officials in the United States, Britain and Pakistan, who have said since last week that one or more of those arrested in connection with the alleged plot might have links to al-Qaida.

As the hunt for clues to who was behind the foiled plot continued yesterday on three continents, considerable interest has focused on Rashid and Tayib Rauf, British brothers suspected of playing a key role in the plot. Pakistani officials have said that Rashid Rauf has an "Afghanistan-based a-Qaida connection."

Ali and other terrorism experts say the ideological connection between the plotters and al-Qaida is probably much stronger than the operational one.

"Operationally, I think there is very little link," she said. But it reflects the potential for al-Qaida to tap into self-starter groups willing to attack their own countries, she said.

Rather than focusing on possible links to al-Qaida, investigators should focus on what drives the jihadist activities in Pakistan and Europe, said Ali, who recently returned from Pakistan.

"In some sense, it's a futile question," Ali said of the possible al-Qaida connection. "The larger question should be: What is the link to Pakistan?"

She said the answer to that question might have more to do with the growth in Pakistan of groups sympathetic to al-Qaida than with the organization itself, noting that Pakistani security officials have acknowledged the problem of the proliferation of radical Islamic groups.

Ali said a number of Muslim ethnic groups in Britain feel disenfranchised and that bin Laden has successfully cast himself as "the hero of the oppressed Muslims of the world."

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