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World: 11 September -- Does Al-Qaeda Represent A Different Type Of Terrorism? (Part 2)

  • Mark Baker

Did the attacks of 11 September, which have been blamed on a previously little-known terrorist group called Al-Qaeda, mark the birth of a new, more virulent form of international terrorism? Many experts say the answer to that question is "yes." They point to Al-Qaeda's unprecedented ruthlessness, its size, and its aims as reasons why the group, headed by Osama bin Laden, poses a more serious threat to the international community than any previous terrorist organization. In Part 2 of our anniversary coverage of the 11 September attacks, RFE/RL asks analysts what makes Al-Qaeda different.

Prague, 2 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Experts say last year's terrorist attacks in the United States were not only unprecedented in scale but may herald the arrival of a new and deadlier form of international terrorism.

They say Al-Qaeda, the group blamed for the attacks that killed more than 3,000 people and caused billions of dollars in damage, is more ruthless, more ambitious, and better-organized than previous terrorist organizations.

Paul Wilkinson is an internationally recognized expert at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at Britain's St. Andrews University. He uses the term "new terrorism" to describe Al-Qaeda. He said the organization poses a greater threat to international stability than older, more traditional separatist groups like the Irish Republican Army or the Basque group ETA, or left-wing terrorist groups like the Red Brigade in Italy. "[Al-Qaeda] is a much more ruthless, a much more dangerous form of terrorism than was challenging the international security and national security of states in the 1970s and '80s and up to [the] mid-'90s. And I think we underestimated the emergence of this 'new terrorism' in the mid-'90s," Wilkinson said.

He said a major point of departure is the willingness of Al-Qaeda to wreak destruction on so vast a scale: the point being not simply to terrorize, as in the past, but to murder large numbers of people. "[Al-Qaeda's] use of violence is very much more destructive of life [and] threatening to peace and security than the traditional violence of, if you like, the older terrorist organizations, which might be called traditional organizations of terrorism. In the case of the Al-Qaeda network, the ruthlessness which was demonstrated on 11 September certainly indicates that if they had the access to chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons, they would certainly have no compunction about using them," Wilkinson said.

To be sure, it's nearly impossible to gauge with any certainty the threat Al-Qaeda poses. Little is publicly known about Al-Qaeda. Experts can't even agree on how many countries the group is operating in or approximately how many members it may have. The problem is complicated by the fact that governments, analysts, and even journalists, to some degree, all have reasons to magnify the threat posed by Al-Qaeda because it increases the importance of their own work in countering terrorism or reporting on it.

Nevertheless, Wilkinson's harsh assessment of Al-Qaeda enjoys wide acceptance.

Bernard Reich is a professor of international politics at George Washington University in the United States and a noted expert on terrorist groups. He told RFE/RL that in the 1970s, radical left-wing groups like the Red Brigade in Italy and the Red Army Faction in Germany were comparatively small and operating from within the relatively well-defined, though still radical, ideology of the political left. "In the 1970s and 1980s, what we were looking at, whether in Europe, the Middle East, or elsewhere, were primarily, again, small groups, and, secondly, concentrating on one or two narrowly chosen targets, depending on who they were or what they were. [They had a] rather defined ideology to change a system in a place or to change a regime or something else in a particular place, but not this worldwide combination of activity," Reich said.

From what is publicly known about Al-Qaeda -- which is also blamed for the two U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 -- its political aims appear to be more extensive than earlier terrorist groups and are connected to the potentially more explosive ideology of radical Islam.

Video statements by leader Osama bin Laden and evidence recovered in Afghanistan indicate the group seeks, as a first goal, to expel U.S. troops that are based in the Persian Gulf near Muslim holy sites. It is also looking to topple the governments of many existing Arab and Muslim states that are collaborating with the United States and its allies. Ultimately, Al-Qaeda is seeking to set up a caliphate, in other words, a single Islamic state that encompasses much of the current Arab and Muslim world.

By comparison, traditional Islam-rooted terrorist groups in the Middle East, e.g., Hamas in the Palestinian territories or Hezbollah in Lebanon, have relatively modest political ambitions. Wilkinson said: "Al-Qaeda has not got a political agenda that is restricted to a single Muslim state. What Hamas wants is essentially an Islamic republic of Palestine and the destruction of Israel, of course. That's what they really want. What Hezbollah wanted and still wants is an Islamic republic of Lebanon. What Al-Qaeda wants is nothing less, ultimately, than a pan-Islamic caliphate for all Islamic people."

Rohan Gunaratna, author of the book "Inside Al-Qaeda" published last year by Columbia University Press, has spent 20 years studying terrorist organizations. He agrees with Wilkinson's assessment that Al-Qaeda poses greater challenges than earlier terrorist groups.

He said radical Islam, as a motivating ideology, appeals potentially to greater numbers of people than the leftist or communist ideologies of earlier terrorist groups. He added that Al-Qaeda's potential size and organizational structure set it apart from other groups. "Al-Qaeda is the first multinational terrorist group of the 21st century. It has drawn members from 40 different nationalities. And it has a presence in at least 94 countries. Therefore, to fight a transnational group of the reach of Al-Qaeda, you need a global organization, a global structure," Gunaratna said.

Gunaratna said that older, more traditional terrorist groups have usually been organized vertically, with the leadership at the top issuing the orders and the lower structures at the bottom carrying them out. Al-Qaeda, by contrast, is organized horizontally, with cells operating more or less independently of one another. "Its structure is mostly a flat organization, a network of cells, more like a network of spiders. That's why it's so difficult to destroy a group like Al-Qaeda. It's so different from all other groups we know, which have a very vertical organization," Gunaratna said.

Gunaratna said Al-Qaeda's seriousness is evident in its training programs for operatives and recruits. He said the training -- which Western intelligence services have learned about mostly through videotapes recovered at Al-Qaeda training centers in Afghanistan -- is more highly structured than that of groups operating in the Middle East or Latin America. "Al-Qaeda has three types of training: basic training, advanced training, and specialized training. Basic training is for recruits. Advanced training is for people who are going to participate in active combat, to prepare them mentally and physically. Specialized training is for those mostly who are going on terrorist missions," Gunaratna said.

The danger is that future terrorist groups encouraged by Al-Qaeda's success will imitate its organizational and operating structures.

Wilkinson said Al-Qaeda has, indeed, paved the way for others, demonstrating how new technologies, like the Internet or modern weapons systems, can be harnessed for terrorist aims. He added that Al-Qaeda, which can draw on bin Laden's personal wealth as well as contributions from wealthy Muslims who support its cause, has done all of this without the vast resources of a state or government behind it. "You can use the new technology, such as the Internet, such as utilizing the kind of weaponry and explosives that may have been thought only available to states in the past, as part of your armory for terrorism. I believe from the evidence that's been gathered in Afghanistan that the Al-Qaeda network is making and continues to make serious efforts to acquire not only the materials for chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attacks, but also ways of weaponizing these materials," Wilkinson said.

Experts say governments involved in fighting this new form of terrorism will have to adapt their strategies to the new realities. They say it's no longer possible for states to act alone to combat the terrorism threat and that cooperation at the highest levels is required. "We cannot do this on the basis of a unilateral response. No single state -- not even the United States, with its tremendous military and economic resources -- can eradicate such a diffuse global network. Despite the success of the military operations in Afghanistan, the network has not been eradicated. The task of eradicating it involves clearly winning the intelligence battle, discovering where the cells are, and bringing the members of these cells to justice," Wilkinson said.

Gunaratna said the challenge is unprecedented. He said Al-Qaeda is a universal organization with a universal campaign. In terms of its organization, targeting, and thinking, he said, "it's so different from all the other terrorist groups we have known."