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World: Recent Attacks Appear To Dash Hope War On Terror Is Being Won

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Two major terrorist attacks during the past week -- one in Saudi Arabia and one in Morocco -- have left more than 70 people dead and hundreds injured. The scale and precision of the attacks appear to dash hopes that decisive progress is being made in dispersing terrorist groups. The hand of the Al-Qaeda network is seen as being behind the latest outrages.

Prague, 19 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The shattered buildings and bleeding bodies tell the gory tale. Terrorism has returned to the international scene with the bombings over the past week of foreigner-related targets in Riyadh and Casablanca.

Some 75 people are dead, including 22 of the attackers themselves, and hundreds of people are injured.

In Riyadh, three closely guarded compounds housing foreigners were hit. In Casablanca, the targets were a Jewish center, a hotel, the Belgian Consulate, and a Spanish social center and restaurant.

The attacks appear to be well-organized. A separate team was dedicated to each target, and the blasts were detonated almost simultaneously in each city. That all the attackers were suicide bombers suggests determination, and their number indicates there is a large pool of fanatics from which such bombers can be drawn.

The similarity of methodology used in both cities suggests a link between the two operations.

It's impossible to say yet with any certainty who carried out the latest attacks. But counterterror officials suspect the main Al-Qaeda movement, which was expelled from Afghanistan last year by the U.S.-led war.

"They [Al-Qaeda] are still a potent and viable terrorist force, [although] I think it's fair to say they are not quite so formidable as they were before 11 September [2001] simply because we know more about them," Jonathon Stevenson of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London told RFE/RL.

To be sure, it may be premature to conclude that Al-Qaeda is flourishing. The bombings occurred in Islamic countries with significant fundamentalist movements. In other words, the attacks were mounted from within what one could call a supportive environment. They did not occur in the United States or Western Europe, where the security environment would have been much more difficult to cope with.

Additionally, the targets were "soft" -- civilian living quarters, a social club, a hotel, and the like. Even given that these places had their own security arrangements, they were much easier to hit than military and government targets.

And the targets were not specifically American. So if the intention was to strike at the United States in the aftermath of the Afghan and Iraqi wars, then they largely failed. In the case of the Belgian Consulate in Casablanca, the attack took place despite the fact that Belgium was one of the staunchest opponents of the war on Iraq.

Stevenson said this may suggest that even if the terrorists are still active, they may be too weak to attack what they consider their prime target, the United States. "Just looking at the fact that the United States and Europe have not been hit by major terrorist operations since [11 September 2001] suggests -- at least on a very tentative basis -- that in those areas the threat has been contained," he said.

So are the attacks in Riyadh and Casablanca a display of strength of the international terror network, or a sign of weakness? Security analyst Dan Keohane of the Center for European Reform in London prefers to look at it another way.

"It's more a demonstration of [continuing] activity. I think that's the more important point for these groups at the moment, a lot of the intelligence organizations and governments generally in Europe and America have been quite keen to show how active they've been at countering terrorism and there have been quite some successes and certainly huge numbers of arrests," Keohane told RFE/RL.

Analyst Stevenson agreed with that assessment. "We are seeing a demonstration of Al-Qaeda's continued ability to improvise and adapt to a much more alert security environment; they can't hit the United States and Europe easily, so they expand the geographical range of their operations and hit targets in which the security forces are either weak or politically compromised," he said.

Stevenson said the loss of its central base in Afghanistan has made it more difficult for the Al-Qaeda leadership to exercise command-and-control functions. But at the same time the dispersal of the organization has complicated the task of intelligence services in tracking down Al- Qaeda operatives.

At any rate there have been arrests in both Riyadh and Casablanca, and that may bring to light more information on the present state of the Al-Qaeda network. Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef said three of the attackers whose bodies were identified had been sought in the investigation of a weapons cache linked to Al-Qaeda. He said the Saudi government was seeking 19 suspects.

Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's foreign policy adviser, Adel al-Jubeir, has underscored his country's preoccupation with Al-Qaeda, and with crushing that organization. "Saudi Arabia has been a strong ally in the war against terrorism for a very simple reason: this terrorism is directed at us," he said. "We are convinced that the United States and Saudi Arabia are the two countries that are in the crosshairs of this murderous organization called Al-Qaeda."

But crushing Al-Qaeda will be far from easy, and analysts say more terror attacks can be expected before -- or if -- that is achieved.