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The frightening evolution of al-Qaida

Over the past year, U.S. intelligence and policy-makers have developed a changed view of al-Qaida.  Instead of a hierarchical organization, those closest to the counterterrorism effort see a network that while less capable of mega-attacks like Sept. 11 is more capable of a long-lasting war against the United States and the West.

Over the past year, essentially since the Madrid train bombings on March 11, 2004, U.S. intelligence and policy-makers have had a changed view of al-Qaida.  Instead of the hierarchical organization portrayed by the president — with his scorecard of how many leaders have been killed or captured — those closest to the counterterrorism effort see a network that while less capable of mega-attacks like Sept. 11 is more capable of a long-lasting war against the United States and the West.

The capture or killing of Osama bin Laden would be a major event in the war on terrorism, one with positive — and even some negative — consequences for the United States and its allies, but it would not signal the end of al-Qaida, the end of Islamic terrorism or even the reconfiguring of the network.

“Certainly, the al-Qaida organization represents the embodiment of some kind of a network of global terrorism,” Porter Goss, the CIA director, recently told NBC News.  “And it's dangerous.  It's dangerous in a lot of places.

“But we think in sort of an organized Western mind about what a network would look like. It's not. It's very amorphous. Some of it is self-starting. There are cells here and cells there that are loosely related.  There are associations.”

In interview after interview with officials of the U.S., French, Spanish, British and Saudi counterterrorism efforts, that is now the accepted wisdom. No one is optimistic the death or capture of bin Laden would significantly change the landscape of terrorism, although on a positive note, no one is complacent either.

As one British diplomat put it, “The U.S. is winning the war on al-Qaida but losing the war on terrorism — and the reason is Iraq.”

Roger Cressey, who was the National Security Council’s deputy director of counterterrorism in the Clinton and Bush administrations, agrees.

Good news, bad news
“Al-Qaida, as we knew it, is pretty much on its death bed now. I mean, we've had real successes in attriting its capability, so the organization that attacked us on 9/11 no longer poses the same type of threat,” said Cressey, now an NBC News consultant.

“That’s the good news. The bad news is we've seen a growth in this global Sunni extremist movement, partly driven by Iraq, but also by other events, which is much more difficult to track, follow and ultimately disrupt. So as we're doing really well against what was al-Qaida, we've got a new threat — this movement, which is much more of a challenge.”

Madrid is cited as the key turning point in the evolution of Islamic terror. Initially, Spanish and U.S. counterterrorism officials sought links between al-Qaida (or, as the CIA now describes it, “al-Qaida Central”). But quickly they realized there weren’t any. The attack was put together in eight weeks, using stolen explosives and cell phone detonators put together by one of the conspirators.  It required no central direction from the mountains of Pakistan, simply a charismatic leader with links to men trained in the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union.

For motivation, though, they had Spanish help for the U.S. war in Iraq, and for inspiration they had bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks. The Madrid bombings killed 191 people, the third-largest death toll from Islamic terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001.

Inspiration, support instead of orders
And Spain is not alone. There is no evidence to suggest that attacks that killed dozens of Westerners in Casablanca, Morocco, for example, were carried out with the knowledge of al-Qaida leadership. And while earlier attacks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, were ordered by al-Qaida Central, the later ones were not. Al-Qaida is becoming what its earliest architects had hoped it would be: a support “base” for Islamic radicals around the world. Even al-Qaida in Iraq, the new name for Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s forces, does not take orders from bin Laden or his No. 2, Ayman al Zawahiri, rather just inspiration, technical support and military guidance.

It is this change in strategy that is now driving intelligence-gathering by the United States and its Western allies, requiring a switch in both intelligence-gathering and analysis.

Phil Mudd, the deputy director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center and the man Goss most relies on for his analysis of the al-Qaida threat, agrees that things are changing and that tracking Islamic terrorism as a general threat, rather than as al-Qaida specifically, can make it harder to find out what’s really going on out there.

“I think in some ways it does,” he said. “One of the few advantages of operating against an organization as capable as al-Qaida was we had a hierarchy, a central unit that we could go against. What we now have is a sense of localization of groups, of the threat so in some ways, so it does make it more difficult to chase the target.

“In other ways, though, the advantage that it gives us is, we're fighting groups that don’t have the strategic capabilities of al-Qaida, so advantages in some areas, disadvantages in others.”

Degrees of separation
Now, Mudd notes that more important than lists of top people in the hierarchy are the “influence nets” derived from interrogations and the detritus left behind by or found with terrorists: the laptops, jump drives, CD-ROMs, DVDs, notebooks and phone books. It is this gold mine of information that shows who in the Islamist movement knows whom, who trained whom, who fought with whom, who likes or doesn’t like whom. It was no accident that al-Qaida’s No. 3, Abu Farraj al-Libbi, was trying to destroy a paper notebook when captured in the Pakistani city of Mardan in early May.

What is retrieved from interrogation now approaches or surpasses any other intelligence on the subject of al-Qaida and the construction of the network, say senior U.S. intelligence analysts. And while rarely operational intelligence — al-Qaida is now too compartmentalized, too diffuse for that — it becomes the basic building blocks for the influence nets. And that in turn is crucial to breaking the networks.

Also critical is cooperation among the nations fighting al-Qaida, whether they be European, Arabic, other Islamic or otherwise. France, for example, has been America’s most effective partner in counterterrorism, according to several U.S. officials — in spite of disagreements over the war with Iraq. 

“We have a very, very good relationship and very good cooperation between United States and France in intelligence as well as law enforcement, you know,” said Jean Louis Brugiere, France’s chief counterterrorism judge, who describes the United States as his “best partner.”  “…Even before Sept. 11 and of course after, we have reinforced this cooperation.”

But Brugiere also admits that Iraq remains a major, if not the major problem now for the United States in combating terrorism.

“We think the level of threat is very high right now,” he declared.  “And for many, many reasons, but especially Iraq. The problem has a direct law of attraction for the loose conglomeration of Islamic cells and groups scattered in Europe.”

‘Bleed back’ from Iraq
The CIA has a new name as well for the Iraqi effect on public opinion — and terrorist recruiting — in Islamic nations: “bleed back.”  This unartistic term is meant to capture the anger Muslims, particularly young Muslims, have about the war in Iraq and the United States.

Goss, a Bush appointee, admitted as much in recent Senate Intelligence Committee testimony, saying, "Those jihadists who survive will leave Iraq experienced in and focused on acts of urban terrorism. They represent a potential pool of contacts to build transnational terrorist cells and networks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries."

Is bin Laden likely to have been upset by this turn of events? No, says a senior U.S. intelligence analyst. “It was his plan all along to have al-Qaida as a base of broader operations. Al-Qaida, after all, means ‘the base.’”

Al-Qaida’s evolution began in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, according to several Western intelligence and counterterrorism officials. Al-Qaida first realized that it had underestimated the attack’s chances for success. “They didn’t expect the buildings to come down,” said a U.S. analyst. “They didn’t anticipate the economic effects.”  Moreover, he says, most of al-Qaida’s leadership did not expect the U.S. response to be as fulsome and as effective as it was. “They had seen what we had done in Beirut and Mogadishu. We pulled out. They expected that at worst, we would go into Afghanistan, where they would bleed us as they had the Soviets.”

But things moved too quickly. As the Taliban regime collapsed, bin Laden made a tactical decision that would ultimately result in a strategic change in direction. The leadership of the group was sent to Pakistani cities to hide. The management was sent to Iran. Cells around the world found themselves trying to get direction from both centers.

Leaders whisked away
Al-Qaida leaders suddenly found themselves bundled onto a CIA Gulfstream V or Boeing 737 jet headed for long months of interrogation. Abu Zubaydah, al-Qaida’s “dean of students,” who directed training and placement for the group, was captured in Faisalabad, Pakistan, in February 2002, Ramzi Bin al Shibh, the organizer of the Hamburg, Germany, cell that formed the core of the Sept. 11 hijackers, was captured in Karachi, Pakistan, on the first anniversary of the attacks, leading ultimately to the capture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of Sept. 11 and the financier of the first World Trade Center attack, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, in March 2003 and Tawfiq Attash Kallad, the mastermind of the USS Cole attack, a month later in Karachi.

In the midst of this, says Spanish counterterrorism judge Baltasar Garzon, al-Qaida convened a strategic summit in northern Iran in November 2002. Without bin Laden present, but with many of the top leaders, the group’s “shura,” or consultative council, met secretly to decide how to operate within the new restraints and confinements.

Leading the discussion was a Syrian, Mustafa Setmariam Nasar.  He looked unlike most Arabs, being fair-skinned and red-haired, and carried a Spanish passport, having married a Spanish woman in 1987. Setmariam Nasar, derisively called a “pen jihadist” by some at the CIA but a “strategist” by Spanish counterterrorism officials, said it was time for al-Qaida to carry out the February 1998 fatwa bin Laden wrote and transmitted widely across the Arab and Muslim world.

“He told the shura that al-Qaida could no longer exist as a hierarchy, an organization, but instead would have to become a network and move its operations out over the entire world,” said Garzon, the prosecuting judge who investigated the role of Spanish citizens in Sept. 11 as well as the Madrid attacks.  “He pointed to the Feb. 23, 1998, fatwa for inspiration.”

‘Declaration of war’ on the United States
The 1998 fatwa was in the words of the 9/11 commission “a declaration of war” on the United States.  But more important, in the context of Setmariam Nasar’s argument, it set down the parameters of what the new al-Qaida needed. It was signed by bin Laden and Zawahiri, as well as the leader of another Egyptian terrorist group and Bangladeshi and Pakistani terrorists.  In the document, bin Laden called for a worldwide jihad on Americans, whether man, woman or child, military or civilian. Killing Americans became an individual duty of all Muslims everywhere, he wrote.

“We — with Allah's help — call on every Muslim who believes in Allah and wishes to be rewarded to comply with Allah's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it,” bin Laden declared. “We also call on Muslim ulema, leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan's U.S. troops and the devil's supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson.”

The fatwa, with its call for individual, not organizational, responsibility, should be the driving force behind the new al-Qaida, it was decided. Al-Qaida had provided $80,000 to Indonesian terrorists to carry out the Bali nightclub bombings in Indonesia the month before. Now, a similar amount would be sent to Turkish terrorists who went after British and Jewish targets in two Istanbul attacks a year later. 

Other experienced fighters, working without orders from al-Qaida Central, planned and carried out al-Qaida-style multiple, simultaneous attacks on Western targets in Casablanca, killing 33 in May 2003. That attack, in turn, became the inspiration, again without direction from al-Qaida leaders, for the Madrid attack 10 months later.

Protecting home bases
It also did its best to help the remnants of the Taliban regain Afghanistan, as one U.S. counterterrorism official noted. “Home base is still very important for them.” Top al-Qaida leaders operated in small cells, attacking Afghan National Army and U.S. troops. Abu Laith al Libbi and Abu Hadi al Iraqi, two top bin Laden lieutenants, have been seen in recent months in Afghan combat videos distributed to Arab satellite TV channels to emphasize its importance.

Another home base is Saudi Arabia.  British intelligence picked up a lively debate between “al-Qaida in south Waziristan [Pakistan] and al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia” on the value of carrying out attacks on bin Laden’s native land, said a senior British counterterrorism official.  “Al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia feared attacks would foul their own nest and that the Saudi government would react aggressively,” said the official. Al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia lost the debate, and attacks against Western and Saudi targets began in Riyadh in May. The predicted response quickly followed, and al-Qaida lost most of its top leadership in Saudi Arabia and, more important, others who were responsible for bombings elsewhere.  In April 2005, Saudi officials discovered among the bodies of those killed in a shootout with their security forces the remains of Karim al Mojjati, the mastermind of the Casablanca attacks.

But the biggest success of the new strategy has been in Iraq.  Abu Musab al Zarqawi has created a mini-al-Qaida using all the hallmarks of bin Laden’s operations: the preference for multiple, simultaneous attacks, often using suicide bombers; high body counts; assassinations of “collaborators”; disregard for distinctions between military and civilian targets.

The Zarqawi-bin Laden alliance
After initially failing to make the connections with Zarqawi in the months after the November 2002 shura, al-Qaida succeeded in early 2004, leading to eight months of negotiations and then in October 2004, Zarqawi’s “announcement of good tidings” — his alliance with bin Laden.

“There have been contacts between Shaykh Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — may Allah protect him — with the brothers in al-Qaida for 8 months. After an [initial] exchange of viewpoints took place, a catastrophic dispute occurred,” said the statement, sounding much like a diplomatic discussion of an exchange of frank and candid views.

“However, Allah has been benevolent to us in resuming those contacts, and now our noble brothers from Al-Qaida understand the strategy of the Tawheed wal-Jihad Movement in Mesopotamia … and their hearts are pleased by the methods we have used.”

Bin Laden, he said, was his “commander.” He swore “bayat,” or personal fealty, to him and added a recruiting pitch to join “the leading unified brigade of the mujahideen.”

[What was the catastrophic dispute? U.S. intelligence won’t say, but one official hinted at “bad blood” that developed between Zarqawi and, ironically, Setmariam Nasar, the architect of the new al-Qaida. “They don’t like each other,” said one official.]

Technological trademark
Bin Laden was soon providing money and other help to Zarqawi. When Zarqawi left behind communications gear in an escape from American troops six months later, the U.S. military was not surprised to find a bagful of jump drives, small computer drives that can be hidden in shoes or passed by handshakes and yet contain tens of thousands of pages of documents or thousands of maps or hundreds of  short videos. They are an al-Qaida trademark.

Zarqawi, for two years in the top ranks of terrorists worldwide, was now joining the top leadership of al-Qaida as well.  “He is ambitious,” said the senior U.S. intelligence analyst. “He wants a presence in the larger Middle East and Europe — and he is very good.”

What’s next if bin Laden is killed or, less likely, captured? Ayman al Zawahiri, bin Laden’s No. 2, is his designated successor, but he too appears to be out of the operational loop. Other top leaders, Abu Laith al Libbi or Abu Hadi, who brokered the deal with Zarqawi, might step up.  Al-Qaida as an entity might morph further, with its leadership shifting to Zarqawi and its base of operations to Iraq.  Jemaah Islamiya, the Indonesian group, might rise to be the main Islamic terrorist group. Most intelligence services see it as the most dangerous group after al-Qaida or the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

"We are also starting to see al-Qaida operations in West Africa, particularly Nigeria, among indigenous Muslims in South Africa, and in Western Europe. The record shows that the recruits for al-Qaida in Western Europe are not immigrants but among second and third generation, like those captured in Britain and those captured in Spain.

Training in Iraq
Cressey also believes the next attack on the United States may come not from a central al-Qaida plan, but one formed by those who are fighting U.S. troops in Iraq.

“One of the greatest unintended consequences of the war is the development of the new generation of jihadis who have developed their training inside Iraq,” he said. “And [they] are now looking for new targets. So as this new cadre grows and becomes more capable, they may look at the United States as the next target for them. So we're not going to know the answer to that question for several years. But they could become a very important threat to us.”

No matter what, however, said the senior U.S. intelligence official, “al-Qaida the group is in decline, but al-Qaida the movement — the like-mindeds and affiliates — is on the rise. The lines crossed that morning in Madrid. Everything changed that day. Whether we can stop the movement is something that is beyond our military or intelligence capabilities, and we are at the beginning. This struggle will be with us for a generation or more.”