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Analysis: International Security After Al-Qaeda

Madrid, 11 March 2004 Al-Qaeda is on the decline. Porter J. Goss, the former chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives' Intelligence Committee and director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was quoted by "The Washington Post" on 16 March 2003 as saying "I believe the tide has turned in terms of Al-Qaeda."

This view is shared by many in the U.S. intelligence community who helped prepare the National Intelligence Council's (NIC) December 2004 report "Mapping the Global Future" ( The authors of the report believe that Al-Qaeda will eventually be replaced in part by "experienced survivors of the conflict in Iraq."

"The key factors that spawned international terrorism show no signs of abating over the next 15 years. Experts assess that the majority of international terrorist groups will continue to identify with radical Islam. The revival of Muslim identity will create a framework for the spread of radical Islamic ideology both inside and outside the Middle East, including Western Europe, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia" the NIC report states.

Al-Qaeda's Desperation

In the Saudi kingdom, many of Al-Qaeda's cadre have been arrested and a spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry described the latest attacks by militants as acts of desperation, the "International Herald Tribune" reported on 31 December 2004. This could prove to be only a temporary setback for terrorists if the NIC report is proven correct.

Police have arrested 131 suspected Islamic terrorists in 2004, 62 of whom were suspects linked to the Madrid train bombings of 11 March 2004, "The Boston Globe" reported on 6 January.

In Southeast Asia, Al-Qaeda seems to have been largely neutralized by arrests and effective interdiction.

In Russia, despite the Kremlin's oft-exaggerated charges that Al-Qaeda and "international terrorism" are responsible for atrocities committed in Beslan and other cities, many experts refuse to blame Al-Qaeda for these attacks and place the blame on Chechen rebels who reportedly have limited contacts with Islamic terrorist organizations outside Russia.
"Muslims reportedly harbor a deep sense of humiliation and resentment over the relatively bloodless conquest of Baghdad and the perceived unbridled projection of American power and influence into the region."

Europeans have managed to achieve greater cooperation and coordination among their law-enforcement agencies and have not been attacked since the Madrid train bombing.

And despite the view that some European governments have concluded an "understanding" with Al-Qaeda and therefore find themselves spared from further attacks, the more likely explanation is that Al-Qaeda has been unable to strike at targets in Europe.

Recent successes against Al-Qaeda, the NIC implies, should not be mistaken for security and could well turn out to be only a brief respite from what might occur in the future.

The Bad News

While acknowledging the decline of Al-Qaeda, the NIC prognosticates that a post-Al-Qaeda generation of terrorists could be worse than its predecessor.

"Iraq and other possible conflicts in the future could provide recruitment, training grounds, technical skills and language proficiency for a new class of terrorists who are 'professionalized' and for whom political violence becomes an end in itself," the NIC report states.

The report goes on: "The most worrisome trend has been an intensified search by some terrorist groups to obtain weapons of mass destruction. Our greatest concern is that these groups might acquire biological agents or less likely, a nuclear device, either of which could cause mass casualties."

The 2003 case of Pakistani scientists illegally selling nuclear secrets is held up as a case in point.

The Concentric Ring Defense

The war against terrorism has been by-and-large fought on the security front and supplemented by the long-term strategy of linking U.S. security to a democratic and liberal transformation of the Islamic world.

The U.S. strategy of "defense-in-depth" has consisted of creating concentric rings of defense -- a modern day "cordon sanitaire" between the West and the jihadist incubators in Pakistan, North Africa, and the Middle East, in order to confine suspected terrorists to those regions. The West was hopeful that once the terrorists were isolated, they would then be destroyed by indigenous, Western-trained antiterrorism forces, as is the case in Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser degree, Pakistan.

The NIC study finds this strategy to be effective and writes that "Defense of the US Homeland will begin overseas. As it becomes more difficult for terrorists to enter the United States, they are likely to try to attack the Homeland from neighboring countries."

While current security countermeasures are producing results, the political differences between the West and the Muslim world remain largely unresolved.

The ongoing crisis in Iraq has temporarily replaced Palestine as the central political issue for many Muslims. Bruce Hoffman from the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research group, has pointed out that "Muslims reportedly harbor a deep sense of humiliation and resentment over the relatively bloodless conquest of Baghdad and the perceived unbridled projection of American power and influence into the region." ("Al Qaeda, Trends In Terrorism And Future Potentialities: An Assessment," Rand Corporation, 2003.)

In such countries as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco, perceptions of the United States are at their lowest ever. The findings of the 2004 Zogby poll "Impressions of America -- How Arabs View America" show that "Attitudes toward US policy in Iraq and Palestine are extremely low, in the single digit range."

Whether these attitudes would change if the Islamic world underwent large-scale democratization is questionable. France and Germany are both liberal democracies and this has not moderated their highly critical views of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

In the Worldviews 2002 survey, undertaken by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR) and the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) (, 38 percent of Europeans rated the U.S. administration's foreign policy as "excellent" or "good." Forty-seven percent say the U.S. handling of terrorism is "excellent" or "good," and only 20 percent approve of its handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The 2003 Freedom House survey of global freedom found that: "The largest freedom gap exists in countries with a majority Muslim population, especially in the Arab world. But the survey finds no inexorable link between Islam and political repression. Indeed, it shows that half of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims live under democratically elected governments in countries like Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey."

The "Christian Science Monitor" on 5 May 2003 quoted Greg Fealy, a Southeast Asia expert at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, who stated that in Indonesia, rated in 2003 as "partially free" by Freedom House with a "democratically elected" government, there is a "general distaste and revulsion at the US for actions they perceive in contravention of international law. It's quite possible that the Iraq war could produce more terrorists in Indonesia."

The "Multiple Front" Strategy

The NIC report recommends that a new "multiple front" counterterrorism policy strategy needs to be adopted.

This "multiple front" strategy was defined by the NIC study as: "The development of more open political systems, broader economic opportunities, and empowerment of Muslim reformers would be viewed positively by the broad Muslim communities who do not support the radical agenda of Islamic extremists."

Despite the findings of the 2004 Zogby poll, which found that "US policy is the major factor that accounts for the low US favorable ratings and the decline in these ratings" and the Worldviews 2002 survey, which found that 55 percent of Europeans believe that U.S. foreign policy is in part to blame for the 9/11 attacks, the NIC report did not address U.S. policy towards the Middle East.

Does current policy play any role in promoting Islamic extremism? Does U.S. Middle East policy need any adjustments, specifically as it relates to the Palestinian issue? In the "Middle East" subsection of "How the World Sees the United States" of the NIC report, there is no mention of Palestine or Israel, the central themes of the Middle East conflict for almost 50 years.