New York and Washington. Bali, Riyadh, Istanbul, Madrid. And now London.
When will it end? Where will it all lead?
The experts aren’t encouraged. One prominent terrorism researcher sees the prospect of “endless” war. Adds the man who tracked Osama bin Laden for the CIA, “I don’t think it’s even started yet.”
An Associated Press survey of longtime students of international terrorism finds them ever more convinced, in the aftermath of London’s bloody Thursday, that the world has entered a long siege in a new kind of war. They believe that al-Qaida is mutating into a global insurgency, a possible prototype for other 21st-century movements, technologically astute, almost leaderless. And the way out is far from clear.
In fact, says Michael Scheuer, the ex-CIA analyst, rather than move toward solutions, the United States took a big step backward by invading Iraq.
Now, he said, “we’re at the point where jihad is self-sustaining,” where Islamic “holy warriors” in Iraq fight America with or without allegiance to al-Qaida’s bin Laden.
The cold statistics of a RAND Corp. database show the impact of the explosion of violence in Iraq: The 5,362 deaths from terrorism worldwide between March 2004 and March 2005 were almost double the total for the same 12-month period before the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Thursday’s attacks on London’s transit system mirrored last year’s bombings of Madrid commuter trains, and both point to an al-Qaida evolving into a movement whose isolated leaders offer video or Internet inspiration — but little more — to local “jihadists” who carry out the strikes.
Although no arrests have been made in the London attacks, a group using al-Qaida’s name made a claim of responsibility, otherwise unconfirmed. Experts say the bombings bore hallmarks of al-Qaida.
The movement’s evolution “has given rise to a ‘virtual network’ that is extremely adaptable,” said Jonathan Stevenson, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Washington office.
The movement adapted, for example, by switching from targeting aviation, where security was reinforced after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to the “softer” targets of mass transit.
Such compartmentalized groupings, in touch electronically but with little central control, “are going to be a prototype for understanding where terrorist movements are going in the 21st century,” said the University of North Carolina’s Cynthia Combs, co-author of a terrorism encyclopedia.
Cycle of recruitment
Combs said the so-called Earth and Animal Liberation fronts in the United States are examples — if less lethal ones — of “leaderless” militant movements based on isolated cells. She also said it’s not unrealistic that another American example — far-right “militia” cells — might make common cause someday with foreign terrorists against the U.S. government.
Bruce Hoffman, the veteran RAND Corp. specialist who fears an “endless war,” dismisses talk of al-Qaida’s “back” having been “broken” by the capture of some leaders.
“From the terrorists’ point of view, it seems they have calculated they need to do just one significant terrorist attack a year in another capital, and it regenerates the same fear and anxieties,” said Hoffman, who was an adviser to the U.S. occupation in Iraq.
What should be broken, he said, is the cycle of terrorist recruitment through the generations. “Here you come to the main challenge.”
He and most of the other half-dozen experts said the world’s richer powers must address “underlying causes” — lessen the appeal of radicalism by improving economies, political rights and education in Arab and Muslim countries.
Combs cited bin Laden’s use of Afghanistan as his 1990s headquarters. “If we hadn’t been ignoring Afghanistan and instead offered real assistance, would it have become a base for bin Laden?” she asked.
Not all agree this is an answer. Stephen Sloan, another veteran scholar in the field, prescribes stoicism.
The American, British and other target publics must give their intelligence and police agencies time to close ranks globally and crush the challenge, said Sloan, of the University of Central Florida.
“The public has to have the resolve to face the reality there will be other incidents,” he said.
Scheuer, who headed the CIA’s bin Laden unit for nine years, sees a different way out — through U.S. foreign policy. He said he resigned last November to expose the U.S. leadership’s “willful blindness” to what needs to be done: withdraw the U.S. military from the Mideast, end “unqualified support” for Israel, sever close ties to Arab oil-state “tyrannies.”
He acknowledged such actions aren’t likely soon, but said his longtime subject bin Laden will “make us bleed enough to get our attention.” Ultimately, he said, “his goal is to destroy the Arab monarchies.”
For James Kirkhope, the outlook is “depressing.”
His Washington consultancy, Terrorism Research Center, sometimes “red-teams” for U.S. authorities, playing a role in exercises, thinking like terrorist leaders. That thinking increasingly seems focused on a struggle for Islamic supremacy lasting hundreds of years, he said.
And for the moment they just “want to be kept on our radar screen,” Kirkhope said. For all the terror and carnage, he said, last week’s London attacks carried a simple message: “We’re still around.”
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