The shadow war heats up

With its latest spate of foiled bomb attacks, al-Qaida is out to prove that, almost a decade after 9/11, it is still a potent force.

Yemen UPS (photo credit: AP)
Yemen UPS
(photo credit: AP)
The recent attempt to cross borders in an act of terrorism, with explosive devices originating in Yemen destined via cargo planes for the United States and neutralized before their activation, should come as no surprise. It is an example of al- Qaida Central’s intensifying efforts in the last two years to wage terror attacks against the United States, Europe, and Arab allies taking part in the coalition against fundamentalist Islamic terrorism.
In the last two years, a number of al-Qaida attempts to launch attacks on American soil from its command center in the tribal Pakistani Waziristan region using Muslims trained and dispatched by the apparatus responsible for terrorist attacks abroad have been foiled. Some of these intended attacks were aimed at public transportation, especially the subway systems of large American cities, and were meant to cause many deaths and disrupt the routine of the American public. The purpose is to prove that almost a decade after 9/11, al- Qaida is still a potent force. This seems to have been the purpose of the attack carried out in Times Square in Manhattan (May 2010) by an American Muslim of Pakistani origin, trained in a Taliban camp in Pakistan and dispatched on his mission. A technical error on his part while putting together the explosive device was the only glitch that prevented the event from becoming a large-scale, mass-casualty disaster.
It appears that alongside activity directed by al-Qaida Central, the organization and its global jihad affiliates are encouraging individuals and small cells to carry out their own terrorist acts. These smaller units have adopted a radical worldview and are self-motivated, using the “thousand sharp knives” strategy, which does not require a large cadre of operatives who have undergone intensive training and received the go-ahead from any command center or particular external training outside their host country.
The purpose of this strategy is to carry out a large number of attacks, less showy and deadly than what al- Qaida strives for, but whose psychological effect and cumulative economic damage are liable nonetheless to be both significant and debilitating.
In the last two years al-Qaida Central has sustained a number of severe blows from American, NATO and allied forces that severely compromised the organization’s leadership and especially the apparatus in charge of international terrorism.
Nonetheless, the organization has again proved its ability to regroup.
There were recent extensive reports about foiled attacks and arrests of cells members dispatched by surviving al-Qaida commanders to various countries in Europe, among them Great Britain, Norway and Denmark.
The travel advisories issued in recent weeks by the US to American citizens visiting Europe based on information about al-Qaida intentions to dispatch cells of Western citizens trained at its camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan to carry out attacks in European cities are a clear indication that the threat originating with radical Islamic elements must still be reckoned with.
In addition, an important component of the web woven by al-Qaida over the years as a built-in part of its operative strategy – namely cooperation with regional umbrella organizations that have willingly come under al-Qaida sponsorship – is being manifested.
These organizations, which identify with al-Qaida’s view of the world, receive the right to bear the al- Qaida brand name together with the name of the region where they operate in return for their role in global jihad; they may also receive material or even operational assistance. Still, these organizations maintain a great deal of command and operational autonomy.
AMONG THE MOST prominent of al- Qaida’s close affiliates are organizations such as al-Qaida in Hijaz, apparently responsible for the attempted attack against the cargo planes, consisting of a merger between the Saudi and the Yemeni branches of al-Qaida; al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, operating as a confederation of jihadist salafist organizations from Algeria, Morocco and African states such as Niger and Mauritania; the Somali al-Shabab, whose leadership includes several senior operatives sent from al-Qaida’s main command center to assist the activity directed against the Ethiopian foreign forces and the presence of Westerners in the country; and al-Qaida in Iraq, which despite the setbacks it has suffered in recent years is proving anew its ability to carry out multi-victim terrorist attacks in the country. This cooperation with federations of terrorist organizations in different parts of the world, with some of them acting outside their own countries, enables al- Qaida to compensate for its difficulties in the central arena of fighting – Pakistan and Afghanistan – where it finds itself under a great deal of pressure, and take advantage of what it invested in training terrorists over the years. Through its trained operatives, it can continue to attack its enemies and advance its global militaristic agenda even without direct involvement in this activity.
Today it is clear that rumors about the demise of al-Qaida – to the effect that it was merely an amorphous, symbolic icon, and that the remaining battle against radical Islamic terrorism was primarily against a leaderless jihad – were quite premature.
Likewise, the claims that Osama bin Laden was no longer involved in leading the struggle of his organization and that perhaps he was no longer even alive seem baseless. The fact that in the first 10 months of 2010 bin Laden recorded his own voice on six audio cassettes – unlike previous years when he used to appear also in his rare videotapes, suggesting perhaps his caution lest he reveal details regarding his whereabouts and/or his failing health – indicate his vigilance and personal involvement in the struggle his organization is engaged in. Al-Qaida’s organizational culture, based on Islamic edicts, obligates it to issue warnings to its enemies about impending attacks against them unless they repent of their evil ways.
The threatening messages sent by bin Laden in the tapes are liable also to be indications of the organization’s intentions and ought to be taken seriously.
Consequently, it seems that the skeptical comments about the American travel advisories and the complacency of the West – perhaps because it has been quite some time since al- Qaida’s last dramatic mass-casualty attack in the style of the first half of this decade – are liable to result again in an “expected surprise.” If the security efforts to foil an attack fail and a mass-casualty attack occurs, it will prove once again that the campaign against radical Islamic terrorism of the al-Qaida & Company school of thought is still far from over and will undoubtedly continue to be one of the major preoccupations of security and intelligence services in many countries long after the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
The writer is Senior Research Fellow and Director, Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict at The Institute for National Security Studies.
This article was first published in INSS Insight