Iraq War Providing a Boost to Al-Qaida

Terror network is using clash as propaganda tool in holy war against West.

By Mark Matthews The Maryland Sun 22 November 2003

"RAND Corp. terrorism specialist Bruce Hoffman believes that al-Qaida probably wanted the United States to invade"oiso

GO TO ORIGINAL:,0,7941602.story

  WASHINGTON - The American invasion and occupation of Iraq has provided al-Qaida with a powerful propaganda tool in its holy war against the West, injecting new energy into the worldwide network even though many of its key operatives are in jail or dead, its top leadership is on the run and its sources of money are shrinking, according to international security analysts.

  While exhorting Muslims to turn Iraq into a new anti-American battleground, the network has staged spectacularly bloody bombings in neighboring Turkey and Saudi Arabia in hopes of undermining their pro-U.S. governments and demonstrating that it remains a dangerous force, analysts say.

  Meanwhile, al-Qaida and related groups have used Web sites, videos and publications throughout the Muslim world to seek new warriors, proclaiming its message that Islam is under threat from the United States and that the region's governments are powerless to defend it.

  "Iraq is a rallying cause for al-Qaida - it's allowed them to attract new recruits," said Kenneth Katzman, a terrorism specialist at the Congressional Research Service, the think tank for the House and Senate. "This was an organization that was under enormous pressure. Iraq has put new wind in its sails, definitely."

  Indeed, the period since the buildup to the war in Iraq might mark a new stage in the life of this adaptable network, which is showing an ability to regroup and reinvent itself even as it comes under fierce attack.

  "We think we can decapitate them by going after leaders," said Zachary Abuza, a specialist on militant Islamic groups in Southeast Asia. But instead the groups "are going to morph and be able to reorganize with the same principles but with different organizations and leaders."

  President Bush has frequently described the invasion of Iraq as part of the nation's overall war on terror launched after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. While the president's justification for the Iraq invasion remains a focus of worldwide debate, the conflict's role in energizing al-Qaida raises new doubts about whether it can be seen as a successful milestone in the war on terrorism, at least in the short term.

  A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, played down the impact of the war on al-Qaida's strength. While saying it had served as a rallying cry, he had seen "no real evidence" that the war had boosted recruitment for the network.

  As officials explain the phases in the American anti-terror strategy, the invasion of Afghanistan eliminated al-Qaida's haven. The war in Iraq eliminated a dictatorial regime with what National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has called "broad and deep" links to terrorism and the intent to amass an arsenal of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons that might fall into the hands of militants.

  Separately, a worldwide assault on al-Qaida proceeded, drawing on intelligence and law-enforcement agencies of many nations, in addition to military forces. Al-Qaida has been badly damaged. Its bases and training camps in Afghanistan were wiped out. Nearly half its leadership has been killed or captured, and tens of millions of dollars have been seized.


  Throughout the world, al-Qaida suspects are under watch or in hiding. The two top leaders, Saudi-born Osama bin Laden and the Egyptian physician Ayman al-Zawahiri, are widely believed to be holed up somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

  This heavy pressure has forced the network to become much less centralized. As top leaders worry about their survival, like-minded affiliate groups are exercising more autonomy, analysts said. No attacks approaching the scale, audacity and sophistication of Sept. 11's have occurred since, although al-Qaida's hand has been seen in bombings that have cumulatively resulted in hundreds of casualties in Morocco, Tunisia, Kenya, Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and, many analysts believe, in Iraq.

  "Rather than a global network, [al-Qaida] is a series of regional networks. There is still coordination, but not as much as there once was," said Daniel Byman, an international security specialist at Georgetown University.

  From an ideological standpoint, however, the American actions in Afghanistan and, more recently, in Iraq have handed bin Laden and radical Islamist holy warriors a new weapon that they are using to mobilize their ranks and attract new followers, feeding on a widespread sense of humiliation in the Muslim world because of back-to-back defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq.

  "There is a strong sense among experts who look at this that [the war in Iraq] has breathed new life into the jihadist movement," said Daniel Benjamin, a terrorism specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "More and more groups are trying to take up the al-Qaida cause. There is a general movement toward more radical thinking in the Muslim world."

  Anti-U.S. feeling grows

  This appears to be true in Southeast Asia, where "anti-Americanism has never been higher," says Abuza, who teaches at Simmons College in Boston. It is found in community groups, political parties, student study groups and online communities, and is spread in mosques, journals and magazines, he said. The top-selling magazine in Indonesia promotes the anti-Western Wahhabi brand of Islam promoted by al-Qaida, Abuza said.

  "It's so much easier to recruit people because of what's happening in Iraq," Zeyno Baran of the Nixon Center, who has studied militant groups in Turkey and Central Asia. "People ask, 'How can I fight the British and American occupiers?' and they find each other."

  Al-Qaida propaganda argues that the invasion proves the point bin Laden made in a now-famous 1996 statement - that the United States is the leader of an "infidel" movement bent on destroying Islam, occupying Muslim land and seizing control of Middle East oil.

  RAND Corp. terrorism specialist Bruce Hoffman believes that al-Qaida probably wanted the United States to invade Afghanistan, hoping U.S. forces would be "ground up and defeated" much as the Soviets were in the 1990s at the hands of Osama bin Laden and warriors drawn from throughout the Muslim world. Having failed in Afghanistan, the terror network sees Iraq as "a second bite of the apple," he said.

  Magnus Ranstorp, who directs the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland, sees evidence of al-Qaida infiltrators in Iraq in the "extraordinarily sophisticated" explosive devices employed in some of the bombings, including the attack in southern Iraq on Nov. 12 that left 18 Italians dead.

  Additional fronts

  Iraq is not the only new front. Seeking largely unprotected "soft targets" that advance their ideological goals, groups believed to be associated with al-Qaida staged two major attacks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, forcing the kingdom to come to grips with a dangerous radical movement within its borders.

  A blast May 12 killed 17 people and wounded 122 at a housing complex used by Westerners, including Americans. A Nov. 8 attack claimed the same number.

  The second Riyadh bombing killed Arabs and Muslims, leading some analysts inside and outside the U.S. government to suggest that it would weaken al-Qaida's appeal among Muslims in the region and turn out to be counterproductive.

  "Such a bombing will actually make people question whether these groups are worth listening to," said Mary Jane Deeb, a Middle East specialist at the American University in Washington. The Nov. 8 Riyadh attack drew heavy criticism in some Arab newspapers.

  Many Muslims also were killed in the bombings in Istanbul last Saturday and this past Thursday, though the principal targets were, respectively, two synagogues and a British consulate and bank.

  But negative repercussions from civilian Muslim casualties are a price al-Qaida militants are prepared to pay in exchange for the headlines and momentum that the attacks bring to the network, some analysts say.

  Baran said the militants are at war with mainstream Islam as it is practiced in Turkey and believe that even Muslim casualties are justified in the war to turn the Islamic world into a Muslim empi e.

  One aim of the attacks in Turkey was "to frighten Turks into thinking that their alliance with Israel is going to lead to further bombings," Katzman said.

  To keep credibility among supporters, the extremists need to keep on the attack, a need that forces them to look for unprotected targets, Hoffman notes. "To maintain their credibility, they have to ply their stock in trade, which is terrorism," he said.

  The attacks serve another purpose, that of undercutting the credibility of American allies in the Middle East by showing they are unable to protect their citizens, analysts say. For Turkey's moderate Islamist government headed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, combating the militants will be a test of his leadership, Baran said.


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