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Analysis: The Changing Face Of Al-Qaeda

Still in charge? In a series of apparently well-coordinated raids, British and Pakistani security forces arrested a number of terrorism suspects in early August. Some of the men arrested in the United Kingdom were charged with " cause fear, panic, and disruption." These arrests have provided a wealth of new information on the current complex status of Al-Qaeda and its mode of operations. At the same time, this information contains many troubling indications that the war on terrorism is far from over.

Eight men were arrested in London on 3 August and appeared in court on 18 August. They were charged with conspiring to use "radioactive materials, toxic gases, chemicals, and explosives" to cause fear, panic, and disruption against unspecified targets, "The New York Times" reported on 18 August. Among the men appearing in court in London was a suspected Al-Qaeda operative named Dhiren Barot, 32, also known as Issa al-Hindi.

One of the men was charged with possession of a "terrorists' handbook" on the use of explosives. The handbook is available on a number of websites.

According to "The New York Times" on 17 August, "A statement issued by Scotland Yard made no assertion that the police had interrupted an active or specific plot against any of the financial center targets in the United States, or that the suspects had access to explosives, toxic gases or radioactive materials. A police official said no such material had been seized."
The fact that they are successful, at least in Britain, indicates that a great many young men are willing to join such groups.

The reading material and bomb-construction instructions the men possessed, along with intricate surveillance plans of possible targets, suggest that they might have been contemplating the manufacture of a "dirty bomb" to place inside one or more of these buildings.

Intricate surveillance plans of the buildings of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank in Washington, the Citigroup tower in Manhattan, the New York Stock Exchange, and the Prudential building in New Jersey were found on a computer belonging to one of the men seized in London.

"The New York Times" on 17 August wrote that: "The Scotland Yard statement said two of those suspects acquired surveillance data on the American financial centers on Feb. 19, 2001, which is in the period when Mr. Barot was said to have been sent to the United States to conduct surveillance for senior Qaeda plotters."

In July, Pakistani police captured Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan along with his computer records that provided Western security services with a wealth of information on the current structure and operating procedures of the Al-Qaeda organization.

These latest arrests in London and Pakistan are revealing in a number of ways:

* They indicate that Britain has become not only a target for terrorist attacks, but possibly a staging ground for attacks on the United States and other targets.

* Al-Qaeda is functional but has transformed into a much looser network. Its older operatives, trained in the camps in Afghanistan, are now scattered throughout the world actively recruiting new members into terrorist cells. The fact that they are successful (at least in Britain) indicates that a great many young men (those arrested in London were mostly in their mid-20s) are willing to join such groups.

* The men arrested in London did not seem to have any recent information about the group's alleged targets -- the different financial buildings. This might indicate that no members of the group were able, or tried, to enter the United States to update this old information. Presumably after the 11 September attacks, security at these buildings has been considerably increased and data from February 2001 would have been out of date.

* Western security forces have been able to improve coordination with their Pakistani counterparts. This could mean a greater insight into the lines of communication between the Al-Qaeda cells in Europe and the Middle East. Some reports have suggested that Osama bin Laden still has control over the world-wide network and that the different cells have been acting on his orders. If this is true, then the latest arrests will force the far-flung cells to fend for themselves more. Such a situation is bound to create difficulties for Western security agencies who would have preferred to combat a vertically structured organization rather than numerous cells.