Thursday, February 24, 2005

GLOBAL JIHAD: The remaking of al-Qaeda

After interrogations of several people arrested in the past few months in Balochistan - prominent among them being Sharifal Misri, an Egyptian said to be an important link to bin Laden - it has emerged that thousands of youths in many countries have taken inspiration from bin Laden's calls for jihad against the US. However, that was not the end of the matter. Many of these youths have managed to organize themselves into independent anti-US groups, and through interaction in various places in Europe and the Middle East with like-minded people have ultimately made contact with al-Qaeda.



The remaking of al-Qaeda
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - More than four years since the launch of the campaign to catch Osama bin Laden "dead of alive", the US has initiated a new phase in the "war on terror" to counter perceived threats from al-Qaeda generated by a new breed of operatives spawned in the post-September 11 era. Unlike the pre-September 11 al-Qaeda, the structure, central command, depth and whereabouts of the latest incarnation remain largely a mystery.

An Asia Times Online investigation based on interviews with well-placed sources in Pakistan who have been in coordination with the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) at a very senior level attempts to shed some light on today's threat from al-Qaeda.

What is known is that the al-Qaeda network has been battered over the past few years, with curbs on its ability to access money and coordinate. Out of this, though, new groups have sprung up worldwide, strongly politically motivated, patient and with the broader perspective of toppling pro-US governments. This development has not gone unnoticed in Langley, Virginia - CIA headquarters - which has advised Washington to develop a counter-strategy to be on a "war footing" all over the world in the shape of alliances with Europe and a powerful North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) presence in South and Central Asia and the Middle East.

Almost as a publicity stunt to announce its newfound determination, the United States has launched a massive US$57 million campaign in Pakistan's press and electronic media (and in other countries), drawing attention to the world's most wanted man and reaffirming the $25 million bounty on bin Laden's head.

Though there have been claims in the media of a good response to the advertisements, the media blitz is just the first salvo in a broader battle.

The US campaign to catch bin Laden began in earnest in the last months of 1999, when the administration of president Bill Clinton started serious dialogue with Pakistan, offering an aid package in return for Islamabad allowing US forces to use its land and air space. Bin Laden was then in Afghanistan as a "guest" of the Taliban, operating jihadi training camps, and had been linked to the 1998 bombings at US embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, in which more than 200 people died.

However, General Pervez Musharraf took over as president in a bloodless coup on October 12, 1999, which interrupted the dialogue. But the US revived a deal with Pakistan in November 2000 in which Saudi Arabia was also involved (see Osama bin Laden: The thorn in Pakistan's flesh, August 22, 2001) to bring bin Laden to trial in Saudi Arabia. But before this initiative could bear fruit, the attacks of September 11, 2001, took place.

The US has subsequently spent untold millions of dollars trying to catch bin Laden. Indeed, his trail has gone completely cold since last September when a tip placed him in the Bush Mountains in Shawal, North Waziristan, in Pakistan's tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan. But he could not be found, despite a comprehensive search operation. Now all operations in Waziristan to root out him and his supporters have been suspended and it is strongly believed he is no longer in Pakistan. And he left no clues as to his next destination.

The new campaign

Well-placed people Asia Times Online spoke to maintain that the new phase of the "war on terror" has started across the world, but unlike the present campaign in Pakistan, the aim is not to trace bin Laden, but rather his "links".

After interrogations of several people arrested in the past few months in Balochistan - prominent among them being Sharifal Misri, an Egyptian said to be an important link to bin Laden - it has emerged that thousands of youths in many countries have taken inspiration from bin Laden's calls for jihad against the US. However, that was not the end of the matter. Many of these youths have managed to organize themselves into independent anti-US groups, and through interaction in various places in Europe and the Middle East with like-minded people have ultimately made contact with al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda itself has stopped all operations pending a new phase. In the meantime it is focusing on developing these new links - the very links that the US is now after.

"Most of al-Qaeda's cells have either been caught or exposed, and they just cannot operate. The present threat is the fast-growing network inspired by Osama bin Laden. This new network is loosely connected [to al-Qaeda] among the top brass, but for sure is associated with it, and the US and Pakistan are both looking forward to catching this new network and their links to reach bin Laden. The network is not in Pakistan and Afghanistan alone, but all across the world," explained a well-placed contact who has 35 years of experience in the counter-intelligence and internal-security business. He spoke to Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity.

"There is no indication that they are from a specific community or ethnic group. They can be anyone, even blonds from the West. They are predominantly Western-educated, and not so much from Islamic seminaries," he added.

A case study

A case in point is that of a US citizen by the name of Ahmed Abu Ali, 23. He was indicted in the US Federal Court near Washington on Tuesday after being held in Saudi Arabia since June 2003. He faces six charges, including plotting to assassinate President George W Bush and supporting al-Qaeda's terrorist network.

This assassination charge might appear somewhat far-fetched, but investigations into his life substantiate a strong inspiration from al-Qaeda and its program, which he aimed to follow. Abu Ali, who grew up in the Washington suburb of Falls Church, did not enter a plea during his initial appearance, but said through his lawyer that he had been tortured while in Saudi custody.

His family and friends describe him as a mild-mannered boy active in northern Virginia's Muslim community, but the 16-page indictment accuses Abu Ali of conspiring to kill Bush either by getting "close enough to the president to shoot him on the street" or by "detonating a car bomb". Abu Ali "obtained a religious blessing ... to assassinate Mr Bush", the charges read. It is also alleged that Abu Ali wanted to "become a planner of terrorist operations like Mohammed Atta and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, well-known al-Qaeda terrorists associated with the attacks on September 11, 2001".

The indictment, however, insists that Abu Ali made contact with al-Qaeda members between September 2002 and June 2003 and received training in the use of weapons, including hand grenades and other explosives, as well as in document forgery. The indictment said he discussed an assassination attempt with at least two other conspirators, one of whom gave him the religious blessing. He also allegedly tried to make his way to Afghanistan to fight against Americans, but could not get there because he was denied the visa he needed to cross through Iran, the indictment said.

The indictment refers to 11 co-conspirators who were in Saudi Arabia with Abu Ali, but neither their names nor their nationalities were disclosed. The document says at least two of the 11 were on a public Saudi government list of 19 people suspected of plotting terrorist attacks in the kingdom. The list came out days before a series of bombings in May 2003 in Riyadh killed 34 people, including nine Americans. Abu Ali was arrested by Saudi authorities on June 9, 2003, on suspicion of involvement in the bombings. He had been studying at the University of Medina.

A Federal Bureau of Investigation search of his home in Falls Church shortly after his June 2003 arrest turned up Arabic audio tapes promoting violent jihad and the killing of Jews; an undated, two-page document praising Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and the September 11 attacks; a book written by al-Qaeda chieftain Ayman al-Zawahiri that characterizes democracy as a new religion that must be destroyed by war; and a copy of Handguns magazine with a subscription label bearing the name Ahmed Ali.

Without pre-judging Abu Ali, US intelligence believes that he is a typical model of the new al-Qaeda-inspired generation and "links" in days when the traditional al-Qaeda has been curtailed.

New plans

Piecing together information obtained by Asia Times Online, there does not appear to be an al-Qaeda threat in the near future on the scale of the US embassies in Africa or small-scale bomb attacks. Instead, the focus will be pressure to topple pro-US governments in Muslim states and to kickstart the faltering resistance in Afghanistan. The aspiration is to once again make the country a hub for global mujahideen, as it was in the anti-Soviet years of the 1980s.

The US response can be expected to manifest itself in a stronger alliance with Europe, which will include intelligence sharing. Construction work has already begun on a new NATO base in Herat in west Afghanistan, and US officials have confirmed that they would like more military bases in the country, in addition to the use of bases in Pakistan. NATO bases in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East are also in the cards.

"Three years of active participation in the war on terror have got me to the realization that we only searched out and cut branches, only for them to be replaced with new ones, and this goes on and on. Now we enter a phase when we are standing in the complete dark with no mark of the enemy, yet he is around and is ready to strike at his time of choice, when, where and how nobody knows," said a senior field official involved in intelligence analysis. "After having a theoretical education in counter-intelligence at Langley and in London, and having done several joint ventures with Western agencies, the present threat has only one answer. And that is justice in the Middle East."

Syed Saleem Shahzad, Bureau Chief, Pakistan, Asia Times