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2002 In Review: After Early Successes, Antiterrorism Campaign Appears To Slow

  • Ron Synovitz

After last year's military victory against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign appears to have slowed. Critics say it has become difficult during the past year to determine who is winning the war on terrorism. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar are still at large. And after months of lying low, Al-Qaeda is believed to have launched a recent wave of attacks that shows the antiterrorism campaign is far from over. RFE/RL looks back on the developments of the past year.

Prague, 13 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The last three months have seen a sharp increase in attacks around the world attributed to Al-Qaeda or groups with links to the international terrorist network of Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda is suspected of involvement in the October bombing of a nightclub on the Indonesian island of Bali and the ramming of a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen by an explosives-laden boat. The terrorist network has been linked to the shooting death of a U.S. Marine who was training in Kuwait. And it is implicated in a double attack in late November against an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya and a nearby Israeli passenger jet.

Although two missiles fired at the aircraft missed their target, the use of the weapons against a civilian passenger plane is seen as one of several signs that Al-Qaeda is widening its scope.

Experts on international terrorism say the wave of violence around the world since the start of October represents a strategy shift by Al-Qaeda and its sympathizers. It is a move away from striking well-guarded "hard" targets -- like U.S. military ships, embassies, or even the Pentagon itself -- toward attacks on so-called "soft" civilian targets.

The Bali blast in October represents the deadliest terrorist attack since the events of 11 September last year. Some 180 tourists -- more than half of them from Australia -- were killed. An Australian tourist captured events on his video camera moments after the explosion. "Guys, this is horrendous," he said. "I've never seen anything like it. It's huge. It's scary. People are burnt everywhere. There are people dead. There's everything. I just don't believe what happened here tonight -- ground zero."

Within days of the Bali attack, U.S. President George W. Bush announced that the emerging wave of violence appeared to be part of a new pattern of global terrorism. "Clearly, [with] the attacks in Bali, I think we have to assume it's Al-Qaeda. We're beginning to hear some reports that are more definitive than that. But I'll wait for our own analysis," Bush said.

Within days of Bush's remarks, the director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), George Tenet, confirmed in testimony to the U.S. Congress that Al-Qaeda operatives were thought to have unleashed a fresh wave of terrorism after months of lying low. "When you see the multiple attacks that you've seen occur around the world, from Bali to Kuwait, the number of failed attacks that have been attempted, the various messages that have been issued by senior Al-Qaeda leaders, you must make the assumption that Al-Qaeda is in an execution phase and intends to strike us both here and overseas. That's unambiguous, as far as I am concerned," Tenet said.

Magnus Ranstorp at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland told RFE/RL that the "soft" targets hit since October appear to have been carefully chosen. "If this is, indeed, Al-Qaeda, we have entered a phase where they are attacking economic targets, and particularly, trying to undermine trading and stability," Ranstorp said.

Ranstorp said the attack on the Limburg oil tanker and the Bali blast both seem to have been successful in terms of economic disruption. He noted the enormous impacts on the insurance sectors, certain stock exchanges and the Southeast Asian tourism industry.

In addition to the economic fallout, the latest wave of attacks has raised doubts about the effectiveness of the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign. Moreover, European politicians and investigators conclude that the threat of terrorist attacks against European targets by Al-Qaeda and other radical Islamic groups is more serious than they initially thought.

That conclusion follows testimony at trials of suspected Al-Qaeda members in the Netherlands and Germany, as well as an Al-Qaeda recording broadcast in October by the Qatar-based Arab television channel Al-Jazeera.

Philip Sabin, a terrorism expert for the Department of War Studies at King's College in London, said that more than a year after the attacks of 11 September, there is still a lack of intelligence data about the Al-Qaeda network itself. "We don't know enough about Al-Qaeda to know how far it is dominated by a central hierarchy that is aware of everything and controls everything. We don't even know whether bin Laden is alive, for example. It seems to me that there is likely to be quite a lot of local initiatives going on -- even within Al-Qaeda itself -- exploiting opportunities and the like. That's the nature of a terrorist organization. The more centralized it is, the easier it is to infiltrate and destroy," Sabin said.

U.S. officials point to a number of successes in killing or bringing terrorist suspects to justice this year. A leading Al-Qaeda suspect, Qaed Senyan al-Harithi, also known as Abu Ali, died along with five others when the car he was riding in exploded in Yemen in early November. The attack is believed to have been orchestrated by the CIA. Two other key Al-Qaeda suspects, Ramzi Binalshibh and Omar al-Faruq, were arrested in Karachi and Indonesia, respectively, over the past few months.

There were also claims of success early this year in the effort to bring an end to the international financing of terrorists. But by autumn, the financial front in the war on terrorism had become a target of criticism by Western experts.

A study released in October by the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations Task Force warned that the United States and its allies, including Europe and Saudi Arabia, have failed to crack down sufficiently on the financial networks of extremist groups.

The report faulted the Bush administration for not using the full power of U.S. influence and laws to pressure other governments to combat terrorist financing. It also accused officials in Saudi Arabia of "turning a blind eye" to individuals and charities that have been the most important sources of funds for Al-Qaeda.

The report concludes that after a robust start, the Bush administration's current efforts are "strategically inadequate" to protect U.S. security.

The most visible victories of the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign came in the months immediately after the attacks of 11 September 2001. The ouster of the Taliban regime from Kabul and Kandahar, and the establishment of a new Western-friendly Afghan administration under Hamid Karzai, are events that occurred during the final weeks of last year.

Since March, when U.S. forces launched their last major battle against a concentration of Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, the military campaign appears to have slowed.

One explanation is Washington's focus on trying to build domestic and international support for a potential military campaign aimed at ousting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, or at least eliminating his alleged weapons programs.

Another explanation is that U.S. officials may initially have been overly optimistic about the prospects of killing or capturing bin Laden and Mullah Omar. The whereabouts of both remain unknown.

An audio recording of remarks allegedly made by bin Laden was aired on Al-Jazeera television in November. If authentic, the tape would confirm that bin Laden is still alive. The voice on the recording claims credit for attacks that have occurred during the past year, including those in Tunisia, Karachi, and even the Moscow-theater hostage crisis.

On the tape, a voice claiming to be bin Laden says: "From Allah's follower Osama bin Laden to the nations that are collaborating with the unjust American government. The road to safety [for the West] starts with stopping aggression. Justice and fairness is to treat likewise."

But despite initial suggestions from Washington that the tape appeared to contain the voice of bin Laden, further analysis by U.S. and European experts has raised doubts about the authenticity of the recording.

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