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2004 And Beyond: Madrid, Beslan Show Terror War Far From Won

  • Mark Baker --> With the third full year of the war on terror coming to an end in 2004, it's hard to say whether that war is being won. Optimists point to the relatively low number of catastrophic attacks -- aside from Madrid and Beslan -- during the year. Pessimists say the chances of a major attack might be falling, but that the "jihadist" ideology remains a strong and dangerous force.

Prague, 17 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A year ago, Madrid was best-known for its art, nightlife, and world-class soccer team.

Beslan was hardly heard of at all outside the small Russian republic of North Ossetia.

Yet in 2004 both entered a growing lexicon of places that have suffered horrific attacks.

In the Spanish capital, 192 people were killed in simultaneous train bombings in March that appeared timed to influence the country's general elections. The attack was blamed on Islamic militants with ties to Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist group.

In Beslan, six months later, Chechen militants with possible international involvement seized a primary school and took hundreds hostage. At least 340 people, including many children, died in a botched rescue effort by security forces.

The past year also saw deadly attacks in Uzbekistan, Moscow, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Indonesia, among other places.

Peter Bergen is a terrorism expert and author of the book "Holy War, Inc." He told RFE/RL that 2004 could rival 2003 for the most terrorist attacks in a single year. "The good news is that the organization [Al-Qaeda] has been damaged," he said. "The bad news is that the wider ideological movement has remained fairly vibrant and has been energized by the war in Iraq."
"There's no doubt that even if the Iraq war ended tomorrow, the foreign fighters who entered Iraq are not going to go home and open coffee shops and falafel stands."

The United States justified the Iraq war as part of the fight against terrorism. But in Bergen's opinion, the war aggravated anti-U.S. sentiment in the Muslim world and could spawn a generation of new terrorists. "There's no doubt that even if the Iraq war ended tomorrow, the foreign fighters who entered Iraq are not going to go home and open coffee shops and falafel stands," he said. "They are going to be part of an international jihadist movement, similar to the movement that emerged out of Afghanistan in the '80s and '90s."

As terrorists struck around the world, the international war against them became increasingly politicized.

U.S. President George W. Bush put the issue at the center of his reelection effort, and exit polls indicate it was an important factor in his victory.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in the immediate aftermath of Beslan, was quick to identify the hostage takers as "international" terrorists -- not Chechen militants. "We are dealing not just with individual, isolated acts of terrorism. We are dealing with a direct intervention of international terror against Russia, with a total, cruel and all-powerful war, which again and again takes the lives of our fellow countrymen," Putin said.

Magnus Ranstorp is a terrorism expert at Britain's St. Andrews University. He said Putin was keen to portray Russia's war in Chechnya as part of the global effort. "It's a very politically sensitive issue. It is of course more advantageous for Putin to make that claim -- that there is an international connection -- in order to draw [Russia's war in Chechnya] into the broader global war on terrorism," Ranstorp said.

Similarly, Uzbek President Islam Karimov tried to use the terrorist attacks in his country in March and July as a way of deflecting international criticism away from Uzbekistan's poor human rights record.

Experts looking to 2005 and beyond say future terrorist acts are likely to be much smaller in scope then the 2001 attacks on the United States that killed 3,000 people. Bergen cited as examples the Madrid bombing or even the killing in November of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by an alleged Islamic militant.

Bergen added that Europe -- with its large and growing Muslim population -- could eventually emerge as the main battleground in the antiterror war.

"We saw in the Madrid attacks that Al-Qaeda-influenced groups remain vibrant. We saw that with the assassination of Van Gogh -- the Dutch filmmaker -- [allegedly] by a Moroccan immigrant who accused him of blaspheming Islam. These kinds of ideas are prevalent in Europe. Europe has 20 million Muslims -- and many of them are not integrating into their host societies. Algerians in France, to some degree Pakistanis in Britain -- there's a lot of racism and a lot of alienation," Bergen said.

But Bergen's not entirely pessimistic about the future. He said Afghanistan's recent presidential elections show that progress can be made in fighting terrorism.

The polls were mostly peaceful despite numerous threats of attacks.