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The al-Qaida threat remains

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
18 June 2002

The political assembly of Afghan leaders in Kabul, the Loya Jirga, has made some progress, and Hamid Karzai is established as the political leader of Afghanistan until elections are held in two years time. Even so, there have been numerous controversies over the role of a number of warlords in their attempts to control parts of the country. It is also clear that there is considerable opposition in many of the Pashtun parts of the country to what is perceived to be a concentration of political power in the hands of Tajik and Uzbek groups in the north.

At the same time, there has been less disruption to the negotiations than some had anticipated, and Kabul itself is reasonably peaceful, even if the same is not true for much of the country. There is still no sign of the extension of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to the rest of the country. This is regarded as a prerequisite for ensuring stability during state-building, but ISAF remains restricted to about 5,000 troops in and around the capital, instead of the 30,000 or more recommended by UN officials and others.

There is, to put it bluntly, no political will in coalition countries to assemble such a force, and this calls into question the longer-term prospects for Afghanistan to attain a degree of normality. Moreover, there have already been considerable problems in aiding the development of a national army for Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, combat operations by British, US and other troops against Taliban guerrillas in eastern Afghanistan have yielded little except for the occasional destruction of arms dumps. The Taliban have gone to ground, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and al-Qaida operatives have dispersed, not just into Pakistan but across the whole region.

Al-Qaida: dispersed, but active

In May, there were indications that the US government was anticipating a further paramilitary attack, and there was much speculation about the status of al-Qaida and its capability for further action. Events over the past ten days have thrown some light on this, and these suggest that the organisation is indeed active and has already had some involvement in a number of attacks.

The ‘dirty bomb’ story that attracted so much attention last week is certainly not the most significant indicator. Initially, the story was hyped up to a remarkable degree, with suggestions that a radiological bomb attack on Washington was in an advanced state of development.

Later, it became apparent that the man arrested, Jose Padilla, was at best a small-time associate of al-Qaida. He had originally gone to them with unworkable plans for an H-bomb that he had obtained from an Internet site. But he was told to ‘think small’ and sent back to the US to do reconnaissance for the possible development of a radiological bomb.

That al-Qaida should be considering such a weapon is no surprise, although most analysts believe that further attacks will use more conventional methods. But it is some of the other developments that are more important.

When put together, the attacks and attempted actions of the past few months all indicate that al-Qaida is active, if more dispersed than last autumn. Among the incidents were the attack on a church in the heavily defended diplomatic compound in Islamabad earlier this year, and the bombing last month of a bus in Karachi carrying technicians to work at a Pakistani naval project supported by France. This bomb was the result of careful planning; it was a substantial explosion and it killed eleven French engineers and three other people.

Earlier, on 11 April, an attack on a synagogue in Tunisia killed five Tunisians and fourteen German tourists. Though initially thought to be accidental, it was later established as intentional and evidence has emerged of a link with al-Qaida.

In the past ten days, there have been two major incidents. One was the attack on the US Consulate in Karachi. The other was the arrest of three Saudi citizens in Morocco believed to have been planning a series of suicide bomb attacks against western warships in the western Mediterranean.

The attack on the US Consulate was a huge explosion, inflicting substantial damage on what was actually a heavily fortified building reinforced specifically against such an attack. It killed eleven people and injured twenty-six. It has resulted in the withdrawal of almost all US diplomatic staff from Pakistan and has caused the US State Department to reconsider its staffing policies in missions right across the region.

The group planning to attack warships from Morocco was also involved in careful and long-term planning and, if it had succeeded in pressing home an attack against an aircraft carrier or an amphibious warfare ship, could have killed scores if not hundreds of people.

What is al-Qaida’s strategy?

Not all of these incidents may have been directly planned by al-Qaida, but they do indicate an active organisation that is continuing with a long-term strategy. This stretches back at least ten years and is probably intended to go on for at least as long, the principal aim being the end of what is perceived as a US military occupation in the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia, and the fall of the House of Saud.

Over the past ten years, there has been a series of major attacks against the United States, beginning with the attempt to destroy the World Trade Center in 1993. They continued with the Khobar Towers barracks bomb at Dhahran in 1996, individual attacks on US service personnel in Saudi Arabia, the East African embassy bombings of 1998 and, more recently, the attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbour.

The key questions are how this all relates to the al-Qaida network and what it tells us about its future capabilities. On the first point, it is almost certainly a mistake to see al-Qaida as a strictly hierarchical and integrated organisation. If this were so, the problem for US and other security forces would be relatively straightforward.

In practice, it is more sensible to view al-Qaida as part of a rather loose series of organisations with many cross-connections and a general consensus about the nature of the ‘enemy’ (the United States in particular), and who share training, logistics and financial support.

It is also the case that the great majority of the al-Qaida personnel have not been captured or killed in Afghanistan – indeed many of them left the country some months ago. It does seem likely that al-Qaida underestimated the way in which the US would use the Northern Alliance as its proxy ground forces, and the network probably expected that it would have safe locations in Afghanistan through the winter.

While this would have disrupted the organisation, it has certainly not destroyed its capacity to act. Indeed, there are reliable indications that the leadership has dispersed operational authority to a number of middle-ranking members of the organisation who may be operating, at least to an extent, independently of each other.

Much of the recent information about the status of al-Qaida has come as a result of the Moroccan interrogation of the Saudis detained for the plan to bomb warships, but it is worth noting that Morocco is almost certainly collaborating more closely with the CIA than any other Arab country. As a consequence, it would be wise to assume that other al-Qaida groups may be planning actions elsewhere with less difficulty.

The one thing to remember about the group is that it is planning for the long term. While the full details of the planning of the 11 September attacks are not yet clear, it is apparent that the operation had been under development for a long time. It should also be assumed that other operations are at an earlier stage of development, and may have been started well before last September.

More generally, we also have to recognise that one of the core aims of last September’s atrocities was to incite the United States to a broadly based military response in south-west Asia, with the aim of inciting greater anti-American sentiments.

This aim has been much aided by the plight of the Palestinians. Even though al-Qaida has shown little interest in the Israeli–Palestinian confrontation in the past, it is certainly gaining by the widespread perception throughout the region that the United States is behind Sharon and against the Palestinians. Whatever the validity of this perception, it is solidly held in the Middle East and aids al-Qaida in getting financial and other support for its strategy.

Perhaps the key thing to remember is that the two events last week, the Karachi bomb and the Moroccan plan to bomb warships, indicate an organisation that is very far from being in its final throes. Indeed, the very fact that it is much more dispersed outside Afghanistan probably makes it more difficult to track and intercept. In the short term, the disruption of its Afghanistan base may have limited al-Qaida’s potential for further action. In the long term, it may have aided it.

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