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2003 & Beyond: Despite High-Profile Arrests, Attacks Proved Terror War Is Far From Won

The international war against terrorism marked its second full year in 2003, and it's far from clear who is winning. The year saw the capture of two leading Al-Qaeda figures and many other important arrests, as well as Saudi Arabia joining the fight in earnest. Yet the bombings continued, and Iraq emerged as a possible new terrorism nest.

Prague, 16 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The second full year of the international war against terrorism saw some successes in apprehending key figures of Al-Qaeda -- but also deadly bomb attacks that showed the war is far from won.

While Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden remains at large, early in the year Pakistani intelligence agents arrested Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, considered a top operative and the alleged mastermind of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. He is currently in U.S. custody at an unknown location.

Magnus Ranstorp is the director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism at St. Andrews University in Scotland. At the time, Ranstorp predicted Mohammed's arrest would impede Al-Qaeda's ability to launch operations on the scale of 11 September.

"I think it's very [important] in terms of overall significance. You can imagine -- the head of the military committee, the mastermind of very complex large operations. When you take him out of the equation, certainly it will have a huge effect on the ability of all of Al-Qaeda to launch large-scale operations," Ranstorp said.

Mohammed is suspected of taking part in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the attack on the "U.S.S. Cole" in Yemen in 2000. He is also believed to have played a role in the murder of U.S. reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in early 2002.

August saw another major arrest -- the capture of Riduan Isamuddin, alias "Hambali," in Thailand. Hambali, a top figure in the Indonesian terror group Jemaah Islamiyah, was believed to be Al-Qaeda's leading operative in southeastern Asia. He is suspected of planning the 2002 bombing in Bali that killed more than 200 people.

When Hambali was captured, U.S. President George W. Bush said, "Hambali was one of the world's most lethal terrorists who is suspected of planning major terrorist operations, including that which occurred in Bali, Indonesia, and other recent attacks."

The arrests were overshadowed, however, by deadly bombings in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Morocco, and Turkey, among other places. While no attacks approaching the scale of 11 September took place, the bombings nevertheless proved that Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups are still dangerous, despite the high-profile arrests.

And in 2003, while many of the targets of the attacks were Western or non-Muslim, the majority of the victims were Muslim.

In Saudi Arabia, two bombings of residential compounds -- in May and November -- killed 52 people, mostly non-Saudi Arabs.

In Istanbul, separate suicide bomb attacks on two different days in November killed more than 60 people. All of the attacks were blamed on Al-Qaeda or local groups associated with it.

Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, described the scene in Istanbul on 20 November, when blasts targeted a British-based bank and the British consulate, killing the British consular-general:

"What has happened in Istanbul this morning are clearly appalling acts of terrorism. We still, obviously, do not have complete details, by any means, but it appears there have been five, at least, bomb blasts, which were coordinated, on the HSBC [bank] headquarters and another on the British consulate-general building," Straw said.

Two other bombs targeted synagogues in the city. The majority of victims in the Istanbul bombings were Muslim passersby.

Some experts say the effectiveness of the international anti-terrorism campaign is forcing terrorists to choose softer targets that inevitably involved the risk of Muslim casualties. Others say the terrorists are killing Muslims on purpose to create fear among the general population and exert pressure on the pro-Western local governments.

Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Britain, Prince Turki al-Faisal, says he believes terrorists are simply becoming more desperate in the aftermath of a government crackdown and are choosing targets of convenience.

"Well, I think it's a measure of their desperation and the fact that they realize they're being hunted severely by the authorities and under pressure. And they want to show that they can do something after all the successes that we've had with tracking these people down over the last six months, with many arrests and many discoveries of arms caches and munitions and explosives. So these people are in a desperate state, and they were willing to target anything available to them," al-Faisal said.

Indeed, one of the positive stories to emerge in 2003 was fuller cooperation by the Saudi government in the war on terrorism. The United States had criticized the Saudis for failing to crack down on terrorists and for indirectly funding terrorist groups. Fifteen of the 19 suicide hijackers in the 11 September attacks were of Saudi origin.

In November, Daniel Neep, the head of the Middle East and North Africa program at London's Royal United Services Institute, told RFE/RL that this year's bombings propelled the Saudi government more surely into the war on terrorism.

"There's been a great deal of criticism in Washington that the Saudis have not been dealing effectively enough with their antiterrorism campaign. Of course, the Saudis have made huge progress in their efforts over the last few months, as we've seen in the last few weeks with arrests in Riyadh, Jeddah, and other places," Neep said.

The Saudi government this year began a series of crackdowns on militants in Jeddah, Mecca, and Riyadh. And this month, Saudi newspapers took the unusual step of publishing a list of 26 terrorism suspects, including Al-Qaeda's alleged leader in the country. The newspapers included the offer of a substantial reward for the capture of the suspects.

The longer-term effects of the Iraq war on the war on terrorism are not yet known. The United States originally justified the war in part as a way of pre-empting possible collusion between former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and international terrorist groups.

The irony, however, is that the Iraq war may have catalyzed this collusion instead. As the year ended, the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq found itself fighting a fierce insurgency said by U.S. officials to contain elements of terrorist groups, some affiliated with Al-Qaeda.

U.S. policymakers argue that success against the insurgency and in the greater goal of establishing a democratic Iraq would help in the war against terrorism. They say it could show would-be terrorists -- particularly young Muslim men attracted by anti-U.S. rhetoric -- that America's intentions in the region are benign.

Others say any progress in Iraq will be undermined by the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the perception among many Arabs that the United States favors Israel.

As for 2004, experts are reluctant to say much more than it will likely bring more high-profile arrests -- and more bombings.
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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.