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World: Al-Qaeda Disrupted But Retains Vast Network, Says Expert

  • Robert McMahon

Terrorism experts dispute the recent claim by an Al-Qaeda spokesman that the group retains nearly all of its top leadership and ability to function. They say the group has been hurt by the loss of its former haven in Afghanistan and scattered successes by the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism. But the experts told RFE/RL that Al-Qaeda remains very dangerous, has global reach, and is able to strike in ways both simple and sophisticated.

Prague, 28 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Al-Qaeda's new claim that 98 percent of its leadership is intact is not being taken seriously by terrorism experts, but they remain alarmed by the group's ability to mount lethal strikes.

Deadly attacks this spring on a synagogue in Tunisia and on U.S. and French interests in Karachi, Pakistan, and a foiled plot to bomb U.S. or British warships off the Moroccan coast all bear the hallmarks of Al-Qaeda, Western intelligence experts say.

In interviews with RFE/RL this week, the experts said Al-Qaeda can still communicate globally and plan and fund operations in many places. The U.S.-led military operation in Afghanistan and a series of arrests around the world have set back the group's plans, but counterterrorism experts say it will take years to defeat Al-Qaeda.

Because of arrests and other actions, Al-Qaeda may now have about 75 percent of its pre-11 September leadership, said Magnus Ranstorp, deputy director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

But Ranstorp said Al-Qaeda's organizational structure is not dependent on an intact leadership. "Al-Qaeda, I would say, has still a very significant capability, particularly when one considers that the organization was never just a 'top-down' organization but also 'bottom-up.' In other words, the localized Al-Qaeda cells in various countries took local, independent decisions to do reconnaissance, to find targets according to a strategic framework, and then to carry those out," Ranstorp said.

Al-Qaeda has shown its skill in planning land, air, and sea attacks. And intelligence officials are becoming increasingly concerned about its interest in cyberterrorism. U.S. investigators have found evidence in computers captured in Afghanistan that Al-Qaeda officials spent time on websites that offer programming instructions for the digital switches that run power, water, transport, and communications grids.

A report in "The Washington Post" this week detailed the concerns of U.S. officials that Al-Qaeda may be seeking to cause havoc and mass deaths through sabotage of computer systems that control floodgates of dams or major electric-power substations.

U.S. authorities have also been searching the Internet for websites suspected of being used to send messages to Al-Qaeda followers, including possible instructions for attacks. The newspaper "USA Today" reported that one such site appeared on web servers in Malaysia and the U.S. state of Texas before U.S. officials recently requested its removal.

Ranstorp said the network set up by Al-Qaeda will take years of effort by the antiterrorism coalition to unravel. "There are a lot of significant areas around the globe where they are still able to operate or regroup in order to either receive logistical funding, launch surveillance on targets, and particularly are able to communicate seamlessly using the instruments of globalization," Ranstorp said.

Hundreds of senior Al-Qaeda operatives are believed to have left Afghanistan prior to 11 September, in anticipation of a U.S. military response to the attacks. They dispersed to Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America, in some cases joining "sleeper" cells already established.

Intelligence officials in Britain said this week that more than 100 operatives are believed to have arrived in the country before 11 September. Worldwide, thousands of Al-Qaeda members are believed to be operating.

Guillaume Dasquie, a French terrorism expert and editor of "Intelligence Online," said there are believed to be least two major bases for Al-Qaeda leadership, near Karachi and in a mainly ungoverned region of Yemen.

For the moment, he said, they have found it easier to plan attacks against Western interests in Muslim countries.

Germany and France in particular, Dasquie said, have been working intensely to cut off Al-Qaeda's financial network and impair its ability to provide logistical support for its attacks in Europe. "If there is no logistical network behind [the terrorists], it's not effective for them, so I think that's the reason why now they prefer to attack the European interests overseas [rather] than inside Europe," Dasquie said.

Counterterrorism officials have also gained insight into the organization's planning through questioning of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, said Phil Anderson, a senior fellow on security issues at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But Anderson said counterterrorism officials need to penetrate the organization more thoroughly. "There are certain things about terrorists that are absolute. They are risk-averse. This is an oversimplification, but they always follow the path of least resistance. And we need to get inside the loop, inside their thought processes, and determine and actually develop the ability to think like they do," Anderson said.

Anderson said it's now clear that, in terms of the United States, Al-Qaeda will seek to mount attacks that cause psychological as well as physical damage. The main focus of U.S. counterterrorism officials, he said, should be to prevent the acquisition and use of weapons of mass destruction.

Anderson does not think Al-Qaeda possesses such weapons, but he said it is clearly seeking to acquire them. "They will go for the big splash. They will try to kill as many people and destroy as much infrastructure as they can. But I also believe that they are gratified by the fact that this disruption has lasted for nine months and will likely last long into the future because that, on the larger scale, satisfies their larger objectives in terms of being disruptive and bringing down the nation over a long period of time. And these are very patient people," Anderson said.

Meanwhile, there are a number of practical steps that should be taken to stop the apparent ease of movement of Al-Qaeda members, said Ranstorp of the St. Andrews Center for the Study of Terrorism. "I am somewhat surprised that we have not used more innovative ways to confirm identities or standardize identities, to harness technology in order to make it more difficult for people to be able to use identity as a means to gain access to a country, or to use that to gain access to bank accounts or credit cards," Ranstorp said.

The United Nations Security Council yesterday indicated that the resolution adopted nine months ago to combat terrorism is beginning to highlight the abilities of individual states to comply. A Security Council committee reported that, so far, 160 of the 189 UN members have reported on measures they have taken to stop supporting, financing, and providing sanctuary to terrorists.

Security Council members urged more countries with technical expertise to offer their assistance to other states, saying the counterterrorism effort needs to be universal to succeed.

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