Sunday, April 08, 2007

They're Back : The Return of Al Qaeda

Jihadists Take On American Military In Iraq And Return Home Trained For International Terrorism

Pakistan Looms As The Home Of 'Nuclear Al Qaeda'

Al Qaeda, such as it was, had been pretty well neutralized as a viable fighting force by the end of 2001.

The Australian, British and American SAS in Aghanistan, and hundreds of deep-cover agents in Pakistan, saw to that. The Brits, Americans, French and Germans had shut down most of Al Qaeda's international financing and money transfers and holding banks.

By the start of 2002, Al Qaeda had lost most of its training camps in Afghanistan and the border regions with Pakistan; it could no longer transfer money around the world with virtual impunity, and it had lost thousands of its fighters in fighting, with tens of thousands more who had once pledged allegiance changing their minds about the 'international struggle'.

Al Qaeda shocked the Muslim world with 9/11's huge civilian casualties and disgusted jihadists who wanted to only focus on military targets. They became their own worst enemy, and most of the world backed the US-led invasion to wipe out Al Qaeda in Iraq. This began with special forces operations launched only days after 9/11.

The Afghanistan War mopped up the remains. It would have taken a few more years, but deep-cover agents would have effectively picked off the remaining power centres of Al Qaeda, from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia.

The reason Bush said he didn't care where Osama was, or if he was alive, was because that was what his intelligence agencies were telling him in 2002 : Osama was irrelevant and he had destroyed his own cause. Bin Laden was finished.

But then came the Iraq War.

We know the story. Once the bombs started falling and the women and children were shown blown to pieces, and the rich cultural heritage of Mesopotamia was allowed to be publicly vandalised and degraded by looters (including international looters and antique traders), what remained of Al Qaeda had all the visual propaganda they needed to build back up their forces and support bases and ramp up the rhetoric.

Al Qaeda tried to tell the Muslim world that America wanted to destroy them through the late 1990s and early 2000s, but the vast majority of Muslims knew they were full of crap. Because they were.

But Iraq allowed Al Qaeda to claim they were right about 'The Great Evil'. America and its allies were at war with Islam.

The Iraq War transformed what was once a fringe terror group of well-financed and well-trained operatives who had scored some major hits (African embassies, The USS Cole, WTCs) into a decades long threat to international order. And it all happened off the back of the Iraq War.

Considering all that, it is easy then to believe that some in the Bush inner circle wanted Iraq to create an enemy worthy of half a trillion a year in defence spending.

After all, getting US defence spending back up to Cold War levels again was outlined clearly and precisely in a number of the NeoCon-centric Project For A New American Century policy statements in the late 1990s. That the NeoCons wanted to cause chaos in the Middle East as a means to increase American defence spending is neither a secret, nor a conspiracy.

Overthrowing Iraq was key to the NeoCon Grand Plan to reshape the world and pump up defence spending to incomprehensible levels.

It worked.

They got the war they wanted, and that gave the NeoCons the enemy they needed.

And now, Al Qaeda is growing, and some claim they are stronger and more dangerous than ever before. In report after report, Pakistan is now being mentioned as a relatively secure and popular base of operations for Al Qaeda Mk 2.

But Pakistan is a nation armed with nuclear weapons, and it is already well on the way to being destablised, and eventually over-run, by the forces of what may soon become known as 'Nuclear Al Qaeda.'

From the New York Times :
As Al Qaeda rebuilds in Pakistan’s tribal areas, a new generation of leaders has emerged under Osama Bin Laden to cement control over the network’s operations, according to American intelligence and counterterrorism officials.

The new leaders rose from within the organization after the death or capture of the operatives that built Al Qaeda before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, leading to surprise and dismay within United States intelligence agencies about the group’s ability to rebound from an American-led offensive.

It has been known that American officials were focusing on a band of Al Qaeda training camps in Pakistan’s remote mountains, but a clearer picture is emerging about those who are running the camps and thought to be involved in plotting attacks.

American, European and Pakistani authorities have for months been piecing together a picture of the new leadership, based in part on evidence-gathering during terrorism investigations in the past two years. Particularly important have been interrogations of suspects and material evidence connected to a plot British and American investigators said they averted last summer to destroy multiple commercial airliners after takeoff from London.

Intelligence officials also have learned new information about Al Qaeda’s structure through intercepted communications between operatives in Pakistan’s tribal areas, although officials said the group has a complex network of human couriers to evade electronic eavesdropping.

Many American officials have said in recent years that the roles of Mr. bin Laden and his lieutenants in Pakistan’s remote mountains have diminished with the growing prominence of the organization’s branch in Iraq, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and with the emergence of regional terrorism networks and so-called home-grown cells.

That view, in part, led the C.I.A. in late 2005 to disband Alec Station, the unit that for a decade was devoted to hunting Mr. bin Laden and his closest advisers, and to reassign analysts within the agency’s Counterterrorist Center to focus on Al Qaeda’s expanding reach.

Officials say they believe that, in contrast with the somewhat hierarchical structure of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan before Sept. 11, the group’s leadership is now more diffuse, with several planning hubs working autonomously and not reliant on constant contact with Mr. bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, his deputy.

“The jihadis returning from Iraq are far more capable than the mujahedeen who fought the Soviets ever were....They have been fighting the best military in the world, with the best technology and tactics.”

Jason Burke is a leading world expert on Al Qaeda and Islamist terrorism. His views and insights are always worthwhile, and invaluable, in forming a clearer picture of what Al Qaeda is today, and the level of threat they constitute to the West.

Jason Burke writing in the UK Observer (excerpts) :

The continuing evolution of the phenomenon of 'al-Qaeda' continues to surprise - and deeply worry - those charged with keeping us safe.

· Britain is universally considered to be the nation 'most threatened by a major terrorist strike' outside the Middle East or southwest Asia because of its strong support for American foreign policies, relative accessibility compared to the US and strong historic connections to Pakistan which allows in hundreds of thousands of British subjects to travel virtually unmonitored every year. Though only a tiny minority are involved in militancy, the ease of access to the country for Urdu-speaking Britons is a huge advantage to those bent on violence.

· Al-Qaeda has re-established its 'nerve centre' in the lawless tribal areas of western Pakistan. The country is now considered the 'centre of gravity' of al-Qaeda by security services and the 'critical battlefield' in the years to come.

· Contrary to the British government's public claim, every source spoken to by The Observer, official or otherwise, in Britain and elsewhere believes the Iraq war has exacerbated the threat to the UK specifically and to the West generally. 'It is a huge part of the problem,' one senior British government counter-terrorism specialist said. However, contrary to exaggerated reports, the number of Westerners who have gone to Iraq to fight is said to be 'a handful'.

· Major co-ordinated attacks on the critical infrastructure of Western nations, such as the Channel Tunnel or passenger jets, are 'within the capability and ambition' of militants close to the al-Qaeda leadership and acting independently and are being actively planned.

· All sources consulted believe Osama bin Laden to be alive. However, his death would 'make little operational difference', analysts say, possibly damaging 'the organisation' but not 'the movement'.

· All thought the struggle against Islamic terrorism was growing and would last 'many decades'.

Western government analysts now usually split al-Qaeda into three elements. The first is a 'hard core' of well-known leaders such as bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, his Egyptian-born associate, in Afghanistan. Security officials believe key decisions and operations take place on a new 'middle management' level dedicated to training volunteers who make their way to Pakistan and to co-ordinating both propaganda and bomb attacks around the world.

'Al-Qaeda as an operational, technically capable network, with chains of command leading back to Pakistan from many places, is very much alive and well and continuing to plot,' said one security source. 'This is very, very surprising given the damage they have suffered but they are a very resilient organisation.'

The second element is the 'network of networks', defined as the series of groups affiliated to the al-Qaeda hard core in Iraq, elsewhere in the Middle East and, increasingly, in some North African countries. These 'franchises' have links to individuals inside Western European countries, particularly the Algerian-based Groupe Salafiste de Predication et le Combat, and are seen as a potentially major threat. Analysts see a 'clear convergence, practically and ideologically, among militant groups globally' with greater co-ordination between them.

'The national barriers are falling by the wayside,' said one Pakistani official. 'Once a group was just dedicated to jihad in Kashmir or Afghanistan. Now it has a far broader agenda and engagement.' With Kashmiri groups historically having a significant presence in the UK, this growing unity is of great significance for British domestic security.

Significantly, the Taliban in Afghanistan is not considered to be closely linked to the al-Qaeda hard core, though there is reported to be ad hoc co-ordination between the various groups comprising the insurgency, including some transfer of technical and tactical know-how and cash. One civilian source in Kabul described links between Afghan and Iraqi militants as 'sketchy'.

The third element of 'al-Qaeda Mk2', say security officials, is ideology. This has mobilised thousands of young Muslims from a wide variety of backgrounds around the world in the last five years. Analysts now say their radicalisation is occurring far faster, aided by the internet. 'We are talking about a group of guys deciding to do something in West Yorkshire, Paris, Casablanca or Montreal', said one Western intelligence official. 'It's still amateur.'

But it can be horribly effective. According to France's Chaboud, the largest source of danger 'is the home-grown extremist'. Belgian officials point to a recently arrested teenager who had 'gone from no engagement at all to full commitment to a suicide attack' in the space of a few weeks 'alone with a computer in his bedroom'.

British officials talk of suspects so young that '11 September is virtually a childhood memory' being radicalised by 'slick, effective' propaganda and contacts with older people. 'Teenagers' bedrooms are difficult to penetrate,' said one UK official.

Group thinking plays a major role.

It is not the poorest people who are drawn to militancy either. The standard profile is male, mid-twenties, often with a degree and with parents who have migrated, often from southwest Asia or north Africa to the West. There are also an increasing number of converts.

'For a few years it looked like the core of al-Qaeda had been destroyed as a genuine physical presence by the war of 2001 and all that remained were its ideas, powerful though they were,' said one senior Western European security source. 'Yet we have seen the core element returning as a major force. They can provide the critical legitimacy and direction that volunteers need.'

It is the continually evolving interaction between the three main elements - the hard core, the network of networks and the ideology - that make it so resilient.

Jason Burke also supplies a comprehensive, essential list of key Al Qaeda figures at large, who've been killed and who are now in prison.

At large:

Osama bin Laden
Accused of masterminding the 11 September atrocities, he has been indicted for the 1998 US embassy bombings in East Africa and the attacks in 2000 on the guided missile destroyer USS Cole. Last confirmed sighting in Afghanistan, 2001.

Ayman Al-Zawahiri
Egyptian al-Zawahiri is seen as the strategic thinker of al-Qaeda. He was a key figure in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which merged with al-Qaeda.

Saif Al-Adel
A former Egyptian army officer, was Bin Laden's security chief and ran al-Qaeda's training programmes.

Abu Mohammed Al-Masri
The 45-year-old Egyptian ran the training camps in Afghanistan.

Believed dead:

Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi
A Jordanian, he rose to notoriety as head of militant Islamic groups in Iraq. Killed in a US airstrike on an Iraqi safe house in June 2006.

Mohammed Atef
Al-Qaeda's military commander, died in an airstrike near Kabul in 2001.

In prison:

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
Captured in Pakistan in 2003, he is to be tried at Guantanamo, accused of being an architect of the 11 September attacks. Born in Pakistan, Mohammed joined al-Qaeda in the mid-1990s.

Ramzi Binalshibh
Also to be tried as a key plotter of 11 September . The former bank clerk from Yemen was arrested in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2002.

Abu Zubaydah
A Saudi of Palestinian origin, he ran the logistics for bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan. Implicated in the USS Cole attack. Captured in Pakistan, he is to stand trial.

Ali Abdul Rahman Al-Ghamdi
Said to be al-Qaeda's leader in Saudi Arabia. Suspected of masterminding the 2003 Riyadh bombings. Surrendered to Saudi authorities shortly afterwards.

The Christian Science Monitor has a comprehensive round-up of Al Qaeda attacks, and its most significant losses and gains during 2006. A few of the most important on the list :


Terrorism experts say that militant jihadists shifted focus to the original Al Qaeda base to utilize experience and tactics gained in Iraq - as reflected in the increase in suicide bombings from 27 in 2005 to 139 in 2006, according to US estimates. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are widely believed to be hiding in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.


Hundreds of members of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a major terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda, were arrested, while more radical members split from the group in early 2006 to form Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad. The biggest blow to counterterrorism efforts was the release of Abu Bakar Bashir from jail in June 2006 after he spent 26 months in prison. The radical Islamic cleric, who is said to lead JI, was cleared of conspiracy charges in December for his role in the 2002 Bali hotel bombings. "Indonesian counterterrorism law is gravely weak," says Mr. Gunaratna. "Abu Bakar Bashir is the leader of the most dangerous group in Southeast Asia. His group has killed more than 250 people."


The most violent offshoot of bin Laden's global organization, Al Qaeda in Iraq, seemed to suffer a major blow in 2006 with the killing of former chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June.

But the loss of his leadership may have actually strengthened the group, says Gunaratna.

Al Qaeda in Iraq is small but vicious...It was linked to the February bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra - the impact of which ratcheted up sectarian killings in 2006.


In September 2006, President Pervez Musharraf arranged his most recent peace deal with pro-Taliban militants in Pakistan's remote Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghan border. Mr. Musharraf's peace-brokering, critics warn, has allowed the Taliban to move freely between Afghanistan and Pakistan.


The Philippine military killed two top members of the Al Qaeda-linked militant group Abu Sayyaf. Military officials say that the killing of the group's leader, Khadaffy Janjalani, in September 2006, and his deputy Abu Sulaiman, who was killed in January 2007, have rendered the group ineffective. Still, US-trained Philippine soldiers continue to regularly engage Abu Sayyaf militants.

Saudi Arabia

In February, Saudi Arabia thwarted a bombing on an oil-processing plant. Raids and gun battles throughout the country netted more than 100 suspected Al Qaeda militants, but US officials have said that the kingdom could do more to curb terrorism, including stopping the flow of militants and funds across its borders.


North America saw no Al Qaeda attacks. American security forces working around the world have seen "an awful lot of victories," says Arnaud de Borchgrave, director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The CIA has carte blanche to track terrorists around the world," he says.

Border Region Between Afghanistan And Pakistan Now Thoroughly 'Talibanised' - Musharraf Did Deal With Pro-Taliban Tribal Leaders, And Bush Gave Him The Okay To Do So