Al-Qaida is changing its tactics and new strategies are needed to combat it, the former head of Britain's intelligence agency said Tuesday, warning that Iraq has become the new epicenter for terror cells in exporting radical ideology.
"We need to think rather carefully about where we go now -- from where we are now -- in confronting the consequences of 9/11," Richard Dearlove told a business conference on terrorist threats.
"Our strategy -- strategic position -- in sum is weak," he added. "A strategic rethink is probably the point that we have now reached."
Iraq al-Qaida 'Disneyland'
Another al-Qaida expert told the conference that Iraq is becoming a "Disneyland" for the terror group -- the new focus of its "holy war" against the West.
"The epicenter has shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq," said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.
He warned that if U.S.-led coalition forces pulled out of Iraq now, attacks in Europe would increase and troops would have to return in two to three years.
Dearlove was one of the purported characters in the so-called "Downing Street memos," notes of a secret meeting in the summer of 2002 when British intelligence officials allegedly warned Prime Minister Tony Blair and his advisers that the United States was bent on going to war in Iraq despite weak evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
The White House has denied the premise of the Downing Street memos, which were leaked to the Sunday Times of London in 2005.
When the U.S. went to war in 2003, the al-Qaida terrorist network had fairly weak links in Iraq.
Iraq is now dotted by dozens of al-Qaida-affiliated groups. Some are led by Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who replaced Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the al-Qaida chain of command and has been trying to build a support base in Europe, Gunaratna said. Al-Masri, an Egyptian militant, was endorsed by Osama bin Laden after al-Zarqawi was killed in Iraq in June 2006 by a U.S. airstrike.
Despite significant setbacks, al-Qaida is thriving -- partly because it has been successful in its "brand appeal," said Dearlove, now the head of Pembroke College at Cambridge University.
The terror group is expanding from its traditional centers in Afghanistan, seeking to spread ideology to people who have had little contact with it, Dearlove said. It is looking beyond short-term victories in the propaganda war in Iraq and looking for newer deadlier attack methods.
Al-Qaida is making new inroads in Algeria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and there has been a resurgence in places such as Somalia, he said. Meanwhile, tactics in Saudi Arabia and Indonesia have been successful in weakening terror groups.
"Al-Qaida in Iraq seeks a propaganda victory against the West," he said of a campaign meant to target U.S. and British voters, comparing it to the Vietnam War.
Highlights UK's 'mature' counterterrorism approach
In response, the counterterrorism tactics used by the U.S. after the Sept. 11 attacks must be updated, he said, noting the more "mature approach" Britain has taken in the fight against terrorism.
"I think if we take a longer-term view, which we should be taking now, the policy has to change. The policy has to move on," Dearlove said.
A clear moral position is required to halt al-Qaida recruitment, and Muslim leaders need to be involved. He also said certain U.S. counterterrorism policies, such as extraordinary rendition and detention without warrant, must be changed.
"At the moment, there is no question that it is very easy for al-Qaida to recruit its foot soldiers," Dearlove said.